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Lies Your English Teacher Told You
You might have noticed our writing has gone through a little Renaissance here lately. We’ve been spending some more time with our brand voice—making it a little more smart, honest and conversational. And that means we’ve broken a whole lot of English rules. Or as I like to call them, “lies your English teacher told you.”
I get a lot of questions about grammar, punctuation, whether someone can or can’t do something. And the truth is, they’re all trick questions: Writing is what you need it to be. It’s what your audience needs it to be and what will communicate best to your reader.
So what does that have to do with your gradeschool English teacher? Absolutely everything. Just like it’s my job to make sure our copy is easily understood, it was your teacher’s job to make sure the rules were easily understood. Sometimes that meant teaching to the lowest common denominator, which is how we get things like “an before a vowel” and “never end a sentence with a preposition.”
With apologies to English teachers everywhere: They’re a bunch of lies. (It’s OK, though! Their intentions were good!) One of the best ways to make your writing better is to start breaking those non-rules—and even some real ones. It’s going to get uncomfortable, but I promise you’ll be a better writer when we’re done.
LIE #1: USE “AN” BEFORE VOWELS AND “A” BEFORE CONSONANTS
There’s a unicorn over there who could really use an umbrella. So that’s a problem. When we speak, we inherently know when to use an or a. But in writing, that hard-and-fast rule sometimes trips people up, especially with abbreviations or acronyms. Do you use an or a before RV? What about NY? Well, that depends on how you read them.
The real rule: Trust your ears, not your eyes. Use an before a vowel sound and a before a consonant sound. So for the examples above, it’s an RV if you read that as arr-vee. And a NY man if your brain sees it and says New York. And vice versa: a recreational vehicle, an en-why man.
LIE(S) #2: NEVER START A SENTENCE WITH A CONJUNCTION + NEVER END A SENTENCE WITH A PREPOSITION
But what if I want to? (I lumped these together just so I could write that sentence.) These two are a great example of catch-all rules: Sometimes you don’t want to start a sentence with a conjunction, and sometimes you don’t want to end with a preposition. I get it—it’s hard to teach a kid nuance, so it’s easy to create a blanket rule they can remember. But once your language skills are fully developed, it’s time to let these two go.
The real rule: Never end a sentence with a preposition when you don’t need to. “Where’s your book at?” is a perfect example of where this rule came from. “Where’s your book?” isn’t just a better sentence, it’s a complete one. So if you can drop the preposition, you should. But if you need it, you need it. As for starting a sentence with a conjunction … that’s not a rule at all. Just don’t overdo it. (Guilty.)
LIE #3: DON’T USE SINGULAR THEY
This one is especially outdated in 2021 as we all become more comfortable with they/them pronouns, but it’s always been a bad rule. Singular they has been around almost as long as language itself. And English has always comfortably used they when gender or number of people is unknown. Here’s an example: Someone just left a note on your car. Do you pick it up and say “Did you see where they went?” or do you say “Did you see where he-slash-she went?” Probably not that second one, right?
The real rule: Go ahead and use singular they, just like you do in real life. In fact, he/she is so clunky that I’d go so far as to say English would be well-served to permanently strike it in favor of they.
Bonus rule: When using they/them pronouns, treat them just like you’d use the word in any sentence—don’t overthink it. “I met with them.” “They said hi.” If the word feels natural in your sentence, you’re using it right.
LIE #4: IRREGARDLESS IS NOT A WORD
And literally can’t be used to mean figuratively. And impact always means hit. Love it or hate it, irregardless is a word. Should you use it? Probably not, especially in professional writing. Should you shame others who do? Definitely not! The best—and worst—thing about English is that it’s constantly growing and evolving. Sometimes that means definitions change and nonsensical words end up a permanent part our vernacular.
The real rule: Words are invented and reinvented all the time. There’s a time, a place and an audience where “wrong words” will resonate. And sometimes it comes down to dialect, so it’s important to be respectful of how a community really talks. Here’s an example: When I edit for the Rochester market, I usually delete “the” before proper nouns—“take 490,” “go to High Falls.” But when I edit for the Buffalo market, I know it’s a local quirk to use “the” in things like “take the 90,” “go to the Outer Harbor” and “get wings at the Anchor Bar.” As long as your reader will truly understand it, you can have the just like you can have irregardless, literally and impact.
LIE #5: THE DICTIONARY TELLS YOU HOW TO USE WORDS
Sure, the dictionary defines words and helps you spell. But you’ve probably noticed a lot of words have multiple spellings. So what do you do when the dictionary gives you … options? In general, I go with the big bold spelling at the top, but that’s my preference, not a rule. The dictionary is constantly updated, too, meaning the word you spelled correctly today could be an alternative spelling tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong: The dictionary is IT. Use it, trust it, let it help you. But don’t forget that it’s a guide, not a rulebook.
The real rule: The dictionary reflects how we already use words. See Lie #4. Then go look up irregardless, literally and impact.
LIE #6: DON’T USE CONTRACTIONS IN FORMAL WRITING
This seems to be the hardest habit for writers to break. Most of us were taught that contractions—things like we’re, it’s, don’t, can’t—have no place in formal writing. But if your goal is to write copy that engages your reader, the last thing you want to do is chop it up with clunky phrases we rarely hear spoken out loud. They make your brain trip a little. If what you’d say out loud is “Don’t close the door,” you’re going to stumble on “Do not close the door.” Help your reader stay in the flow you’ve created. Nothing pulls me out of a story faster than avoiding contractions.
The real rule: There is absolutely no rule about contractions. I’m begging you to use them.
LIE #7: USE WHO FOR SUBJECTS AND WHOM FOR OBJECTS
Confession? I wrote that headline as “Use who for xxx and whom for xxx.” Because I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. If you drop whom from your vocabulary entirely, your writing will be just as strong—and probably stronger—because it’ll be more relatable. Merriam-Webster uses this example of correct who/whom use: “Who gave it to you?” vs. “You gave it to whom?” But wouldn’t the whom question be better as “Who did you give it to?” See, there’s that sneaky “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” lie again.
The real rule: OK, I guess this one is a real rule. But your writing will almost always be better if you break it.
LIE #8: DON’T WRITE IN SENTENCE FRAGMENTS
You mean like this? Or this? How about this? Anybody confused? No? Great.
The real rule: Yes, full sentences are good writing, and they should make up the bulk of your copy. But sentence fragments can be a powerful way to communicate, especially in more informal, conversational or fun writing. Be careful, though: tread lightly and start small. Sentence fragments can be confusing when they aren’t done well, so it’s important to get a good handle on them first. A good trick is to use them in a way that could be part of the previous sentence. Like this.
LIE #9: NEVER ADD 'S TO A WORD THAT ENDS IN S
My friend Charles was distraught a few years ago when I edited a possessive 's onto his name: Charles’s book. He had spent his entire life writing Charles’ to show possession—and he isn’t wrong. Whether to include that extra s is a style choice, not a grammar rule. And I certainly wasn’t going to make him change his personal lifelong choice to fit my preference. In editing and writing, consistency is key, so when something like this comes up, pick your style and stick with it.
The real rule: You get to choose! If you love the simplicity of always adding 's to show possessive, go for it. If you prefer a more traditional s’, also go for it! Just make sure you carry that style through in all of your work.
LIE #10: PUNCTUATION ALWAYS GOES INSIDE QUOTE MARKS
I think this one probably surprises people in both directions. I see a lot of copy with periods and commas after the quote mark and most people don’t know that some punctuation really does go after them. So you know where this is going: Both are correct. Except when they aren’t.
The real rule: In American English, commas and periods always go inside the quote. Colons and semi-colons always go outside the quote. And question marks and exclamation points … depend. If the ? or ! is part of the quoted copy, it goes inside. If not, it goes outside. Like this: Have you read “Carry On”? Have you read “Where’s Waldo?” Or “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!”? I’m not saying it’s pretty.
This certainly isn’t a list that has to stop at 10. I killed passive voice (go for it), split infinitives (also go for it) and British vs. American English (please stop writing theatre, but also whatever, go for it) at the 11th hour.
If you think of language as a bowling ball, the rules are the bumpers in the gutters. They guide us down our lane, but we’re free to bounce around in there. Regardless of how many pins you knock down, those bumpers will help you get to the end.
So if English is full of lies, here’s the one truth: Write for your audience. Write so they easily understand your copy without having to work for it. And flex your grammar muscles. If your copy’s written well, the rules are just bumpers.
Jen Moritz is DS+CO’s senior editor with a passion for the right words and thoughtful writing.