We all learned these mute rules from our elementary or grade school teachers growing up, now it’s time to learn the truth about them
I came across these rules recently, as I have been delving into refreshing myself with all the ins and outs of the Chicago Manual of Style — to prepare myself for becoming a professional editor. These are all things that left me with a sigh of relief; I don’t actually have to worry about them as much as I had thought growing up and hearing it from my teachers in elementary school (or grade school, whichever you prefer to call it). Some of them pleasantly surprised me.
Here are the 6 no-nos that aren’t actually no-nos I had spent gruelling hours of my formative years trying to avoid including in my writing.
1. You Should Never Split Infinitives
Were you always told in your English grammar classes to never split your infinitives?
An infinitive is the base form of a verb — void of number, person, or tense. It is always preceded by to (eg. to sleep, to eat, etc). To “split” it means to put any words in between those two words that make up the infinitive.
While it’s still preferable to keep the infinitive together, in many cases it’s actually better to split them.
Example #1: Emphasis
For example, take the following popular saying:
“To boldly go where no man has gone before”
Would this sentence have the same effect if it were:
“To go boldly where no man had gone before”
Example #2: Meaning
Sometimes splitting vs. not splitting the infinitive will actually give your sentence a whole different meaning.
“She seems to really hate him”
“She really seems to hate him”
It’s subtle, but the meaning of the two sentences is different. In the first sentence, the adverb really modifies hate. In the second sentence, the adverb really modifies seems.
If the sentence is more solid and clear with the infinitive split, or it would change the meaning if you left it intact, then don’t be afraid to split it.
2. Passive Voice Is Never Useful
It’s a pretty well-known fact in writing fiction and general nonfiction that it’s best to avoid passive voice when you can. And it is good to avoid in order to make the your sentences more clear. But passive is okay at times for emphasis or to make a specific point.
Example #1: Emphasis
It’s pretty common for research papers to use passive voice for sentences such as:
“Research has been conducted by specialists in the field”
You could technically also write:
“Specialists have conducted research in the field”
But in cases like these we want the emphasis to be on research rather than on specialists.
Example #2: Hidden Subject
Sometimes we don’t actually want to reveal the subject of the sentence. Passive voice is perfect for times like these.
Think of the following two sentences as examples of this:
“I made mistakes”
“Mistakes were made”
This is called the divine passive. There is no agent of action. Or at least, the subject of the action isn’t revealed to us. This form of writing is used to soften delivery of bad news or avoid doling out direct responsibility. And it’s pretty effective for politicians.
Try to limit using passive sentences when possible, except when you want to emphasize the object or hide the subject.
3. You Should Not Use the Pronouns They/Their/Them to Modify Singular Antecedents
Have you ever been corrected for overusing the pronouns they/their/them when you’re not sure of gender in a piece of writing? Well, the occurrence of this correction is going down. Once upon a time, this set of pronouns was only used to refer to plural antecedents (i.e. more than one person). But times are changing, as you may already know. And this change is allowing sentences like the following to be accepted:
“Everyone did their chores”
As opposed to needing it to be:
“Everyone did his or her chores”
It is of course still best to know which singular pronouns to use for an individual person.
If you are able to make a subject plural or rework the sentence to avoid pronoun-antecedent disagreement, then that is usually the best option. But if you can’t, you can use they, their, or them as a singular pronoun, as it’s becoming more accepted to do so.
4. Adjectives Are a Lot Better Than Adverbs
Adverbs get a really bad rap in writing. Adjectives less so. Stephen King really hammers the point home about the dangers of overusing adverbs in his book On Writing, and I think that’s the most famous example of writers focusing on avoiding adverbs whenever they can. Adjectives aren’t that much better though. And if you’re going to talk about the dangers of overusing adverbs, I would lump adjectives into that category as well.
Just look at the following sentence:
“Ten hairy, curious, snow-white kittens nuzzled up to the soft-nosed, grey mother dog”
Too much, right? Like I said, adjectives can be overdone too.
Mark Twain had it right when he said:
“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”
Adjectives can be just as overdone as adverbs, so be conscious of the way they are used in writing. Try and find a strong verb instead to risk overusing adjectives in the place of strong writing. Let the action speak for itself; show rather than tell.
5. You Should Never End a Sentence with a Preposition
Do you remember your teachers telling you to never end a sentence with a preposition? Well, the good news is that it’s actually fine. There isn’t actually a grammatical reason not to. So you can stop wasting time trying to wrangle a sentence into an unintelligible mess just to avoid an ending preposition.
When criticized for ending a sentence with a preposition, this was Sir Winston Churchill’s reply:
“This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.”
There is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition.
6. You Should Never Start a Sentence with a Conjunction
Conjunctions are designed to join clauses. So that means you should never see one in the beginning of a sentence, right? Well, not really. It’s best to avoid in formal writing, but in fiction and general nonfiction it’s generally okay to begin a sentence with a conjunction. Just as it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition, it’s also okay to begin one with a conjunction. Just don’t do it to the point of it being too much for the reader.
It’s perfectly okay to begin a sentence with a conjunction, unless the writing is formal. Just don’t overdo it.
What did you think of this list? Were you surprised by any of these? Do you have any other hard grammar rules your teachers perpetuated when you were growing up? Let me know what they are in the comments!
Are you a dark fiction writer looking to have your work published?
Submit to our digital and print anthology series – Dark Speculations: Tales Of Various Shapes And Shadows.
We seek dark speculative tales of any genre as long as they are in line with dark themes. We aim to publish stories in a wide variety of horror, sci-fi, adventure, and fantasy subgenres.
Ready to share your own thoughts on fact and fiction? Want to know how far your writing can take you?
Join the ranks of thousands who have become amazing writers through this platform, gain unlimited access to their work, and earn some extra money along the way — all for only $5 a month.
Ready to give it a go? Sign up here.
If you like this article, be sure to follow me to stay on top of my musings.
Need help writing and publishing your book? Want to learn to write a story that sells?
Work with a certified coach to get your ideas out of your head and onto the page—then onto bookshelves.
We are as detail-focused as we are creative, as friendly as we are professional.
Clear the mist on publishing.