Three grammar rules you can break. Sometimes.

English grammar is a thicket of complex rules. Here are three that you can prune. 

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Grammar. Some people love it, others hate it. Lots feel like grammar is very shaky ground. Everyone knows that Bad Grammar is a terrible place to be, but no one quite knows where the boundaries lie - even after checking out the best grammar guides. It begins with an inkling – a sense of unease, a feeling that something in the copy is just not quite right.

Then you spot it moving in the shadows, hidden in the text. The ‘and’ at the beginning of the sentence. The comma that you’re not quite sure about. The preposition that may or may not be hanging off the end of a sentence. A vague memory of school, and the sort of strict rules your teacher laid down. Perhaps you’re not on such shaky ground after all: a rule like ‘never begin a sentence with “and”’ is simple to use, right?

Well, not exactly. Grammar gets complicated. And while this isn’t the place to go into the depths of grammar points like number, article, and participle – there are a few rules you can stop worrying about, straight away.

There are many grammar rules that do matter. Flout them at your peril. But some can – and should – be broken. Sometimes. Here are three of them.

Comma before ‘and’

Also known as the Oxford Comma. In some cases it is unnecessary. For simple lists, you can get away without it: ‘I bought some apples, plums, pears and oranges’ makes perfect sense.

In other cases, you need the comma to clarify the meaning: ‘I’d like to thank my parents, Mabel and God,’ is different to I’d like to thank my parents, Mabel, and God’. In the first example, it appears that Mabel and God are the parents. In the second, the parents, Mabel, and God are all items on a list. Or take this more extreme example, from The Times:

Times story reported that: 'Highlights of his tour include encoutners with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector'.

We say: judge it on a case-by-case basis, and make sure the meaning is as clear as it possibly can be. You can read more about commas in this article by Comma Queen Mary Norris.

Never begin a sentence with ‘and’

This is the most persistent of all. It crops up all the time – mostly because we like to push ‘and’ to the front of a sentence occasionally, to give the copy a little punchiness. And because the rule is utter nonsense, taught to young children to stop them beginning every sentence with it. ‘And then we went to the library. And then we took out some books. And then we went for an ice cream. And then I fell over. And then we went home…’

Of all the grammar anyone is ever taught, this is the one thing they remember. It is seemingly the only steadfast rule to cling to, in the uneasy world of grammar. Sorry people, it has to go. Drop it. And move on.

Never to split an infinitive

John Dryden invented this one to make fellow poet and playwright Ben Jonson look bad. That was back in the 17th century. It’s based on the spurious notion that English should adhere to the grammar rules of Latin. Infinitives in Latin cannot be split, because they are a single word: habere, ‘to have’. In English, infinitives are made from two words – ‘to’ and the verb. Putting an adverb in middle is often the best place for it: ‘to boldly go’ has a better rhythm than ‘to go boldly’. Sometimes it’s essential for the meaning. Oxford Dictionaries puts this quite nicely: 

‘You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’]

doesn’t have quite the same meaning as:

You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’]

We say forget it. Split infinitives as much as you like, in all but the most formal of styles.

Want more? Take a look at these grammar guides that we recommend – don’t just stumble around on the Internet. It’s full of unscrupulous blogs that may or may not be correct. Ahem.

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