This is a long-overdue follow-up to Kent Clark’s 2009 post, “Sometimes the worst grammar is the right grammar”.
Most rules of grammar exist for good reason: to promote clarity and precision. But there are a few rules that, if followed without question, can make your prose sound dull, awkward and presumptuous.
Let’s look at some of the most breakable rules of grammar.
1. Beginning Sentences With “And” or “But”
I had a heated argument with a sticker recently. He was adamant that starting sentences with and or but was unprofessional. My pointing out that flouters of this rule included William Shakespeare did not shake his opinion.
Go ahead, start sentences with these lovely little conjunctions. And make no apologies for it. But don’t overdo it.
2. Using Sentence Fragments
Sticklers (usually high school teachers) will insist you must always use complete sentences.
Rubbish. Throwing in the odd sentence fragment is a great way to liven your prose.
3. Ending Sentences With Prepositions
Prepositions are words that link other words or phrases and describe a temporal, spatial or logical relationship between them.
Common examples include about, above, after, at, below, behind, between, but, by, during, for, into, near, on, over, past, through, to, under, upon and with.
Sometime, somewhere, some constipated, bun-haired stickler decided that since prepositions link things, it was improper to put them at the end of a sentence. What a silly rule.
The problem is, the “correct” usage often sounds awkward. For example, a stickler might object to “Where did he come from?” and change it to the more correct “From where did he come?”
It was precisely this kind awkward editorial “correction” that drove Sir Winston Churchill to respond famously, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”
Go ahead, end sentences with prepositions if it sounds right. Sir Winston did it, you can too!
4. Splitting Infinitives
I have a friend who won’t split infinitives, even in speech. But he’s pretty much the last person on the planet to feel constrained by this ridiculous rule…
Technically, you’re not supposed to insert words between “to” and its verb. My stickler friend bristles every time he hears the opening to Star Trek: “To boldly go…”
Really? Does the technically correct “To go boldly” (or “Boldly to go”) sound better? Not to my ears.
If the infinitive sounds better split, split it!
5. Using “Whom”
I’ve covered this one before. But it’s worth mentioning again: don’t fret over when to use “whom”.
“Whom” may sound correct when used directly after a preposition (for example, “To whom?”) But in many cases, it sounds pompous and wrong. Especially when it appears at the beginning of a sentence, like “Whom are you trying to kid?”
I explained the rule in my previous post, so check it out if you like. But really, I wouldn’t worry about it. If whom sounds pompous, go ahead and use who.