Writing well is difficult. It requires a lot of time and patience. And it’s made more difficult when one has to ignore one’s earliest teaching on the subject.
I fondly recall my elementary school teachers. Well, most of them. And it’s true that a lot of rules they taught me (say please and thank you, wait your turn, use a tissue, not your sleeve) have served me well throughout life. But our teachers, with the best of intentions, often teach us writing rules that are simply incorrect when we grow up and strive to write better than a third-grader.
Here are three rules you may have learned back in grade school that you should forget.
Don’t Start a Sentence with “And” or “But”
At a legal-writing CLE I taught with Matt Salzwedel, one of the attendees noted that she was taught early on never to start a sentence with “and” or “but.” Matt explained that children are taught this rule so that they don’t fall into the trap of using “and” to start sentences over and over:
Yesterday I woke up. And I got dressed. And then I ate breakfast. And I had cereal. And then I went outside to play. And it was fun.
You get the idea. But you’re not going to write like that (we hope). So forget that rule. Using “and” to start a sentence is not only grammatically correct, it’s often the best choice. Compare this:
The defendant had a loaded pistol in his jacket. And he was high on methamphetamine.
The defendant had a pistol in his jacket. Additionally, he was high on methamphetamine.
Which sentence has a greater impact?
Keeping “but” away from the front of your sentence leads to the dreaded “however comma.” Compare this:
Mr. Jones identified the defendant as his attacker. But he later admitted he lied to police about that and other facts.
Mr. Jones identified the defendant as his attacker. However, he later admitted he lied to police about that and other facts.
So “and” or “but” not only can start a sentence, often they should.
Don’t End a Sentence with a Preposition
This rule comes from a few Latin-obsessed writers in the 19th century. But English sentences are not structured like Latin. Forcing the preposition into the sentence leads to bad results:
What is the new tool used for?
For what purpose is the new tool used?
Adverbs Must Always End with “—ly”
As I previously wrote, there are a number of “flat” adverbs that don’t feature “ly.” Examples include:
high, fast, slow, hard, easy, sure, bright, wrong, right, near, late, safe, and soon.
Some can use “ly” but don’t need to, like “safe.” “Drive safe” is just as correct as “drive safely.” But “soonly” and “fastly”? Nope.
There Are No Rules
Here’s the truth about grammar rules: there aren’t any.
You won’t find a Universally Accepted Book of Grammar Rules anywhere. People create what wind up being called “rules” in an effort to improve others’ writing. Some rules are helpful in some situations but not in others. The best way to improve your grammar (or any other aspect of your writing) is to read good writing, buy a good guide to usage (and consult it), and work hard on your own writing.
Originally published 2013-04-18. Revised 2015-04-03. Republished 2017-04-21.