Bogus writing rules you should ditch

Most of us learned the basic rules of writing in elementary, middle, and high school from teachers who had legitimate reasons for outlawing certain practices. While these rules may have helped us learn the fundamentals of writing, most of them don’t hold up as we age, learn more about writing, and, certainly, enter the business world.

Many of you have likely learned that the following rules are falsehoods, but for those of you who have not—well, prepare to have your world turned upside-down.

You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction

As a reminder, conjunctions are those FANBOYS words you learned long ago: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. They’re used to connect dependent and independent clauses and form series.

I think teachers made up this rule to keep students from turning dependent clauses into sentences, like this: “I love pizza. But not mushrooms.” Since “but not mushrooms” doesn’t have a subject and verb, it’s a dependent clause that cannot stand on its own. The sentence should instead be written like this: “I love pizza but not mushrooms.”

Conjunctions actually make for terrific sentence starters. When a sentence begins with a conjunction, it is clear that it’s linked to the previous sentence, thus making a smooth transition from one idea to the next.

Leff Communications has lots of team building events because it’s important to have strong relationships with your coworkers. But we also have these events because we like to drink, bowl, gamble, and just generally have a good time.

If you’re confident in your ability to tell the difference between dependent and independent clauses, I would encourage you to let the conjunctions rain.

You can’t end a sentence with a preposition

The Chicago Manual of Style really puts this rule to bed best:

The traditional caveat of yesteryear against ending sentences with prepositions is, for most writers, an unnecessary and pedantic restriction. As Winston Churchill famously said, “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” A sentence that ends in a preposition may sound more natural than a sentence carefully constructed to avoid a final preposition. Compare, for example, this is the case I told you about with this is the case about which I told you. The “rule” prohibiting terminal prepositions was an ill-founded superstition.

Some have debated whether or not Churchill actually said these words, but, regardless, the point is the same: it’s an inane rule that we must abandon. Sweet relief!

Use a double space after a period

We’ve written about this rule before, but it bears repeating. We and your trusty stylebook of choice agree: don’t put two spaces after a period. EVER. Like the previous rule, this one was abandoned long ago, but many haven’t gotten the word. So now you know: stop wasting space with that extra space. We can read your sentences without it.

Every paragraph must have 3–5 sentences

This rule served its purpose as we learned the basics of essay writing. It helps young writers ensure that each paragraph has a topic, that all material in the paragraph sticks to that topic, and that you adequately substantiate all claims. But this rule has no place in daily life or business writing. While you still want to make sure every paragraph follows a theme, short paragraphs can be great for driving home a point or acting as a transition.

After all, sometimes the shortest paragraphs, like the shortest songs, have the biggest impact.

“They” cannot be a singular pronoun

This one is still a bit up in the air. Here’s an example so you know what I’m talking about:

Do you know who wrote that blog post on bar charts and red wine? They did a great job making it both informative and entertaining.


Do you know who wrote that blog post on bar charts and red wine? He or she did a great job making it both informative and entertaining.

That sounds awkward, and it’s not even the worst example. Like avoiding ending sentences with a preposition, using “he or she” can get really weird and clunky—especially if it’s an ongoing paragraph or piece in which the subject is not identified.

While many grammarians and writers are ready to call “they” both a singular and plural pronoun, and I’d encourage you to do so in more casual writing, for business purposes it is still safer to avoid it—for now. I’ve no doubt that soon enough we will all agree, as I’ve already decided, that “they” can serve both functions. I do not believe it causes confusion when used in the singular sense, and it was developed because our language has a need for a gender-neutral singular pronoun. It’s one of those cases in which our language is shifting and changing naturally, by necessity, and a few people are taking a longer time catching up than others. While we wait for the laggards, go ahead and use it in Facebook, Instagram, your personal blog, emails, and texts.

Ain’t ain’t a word

Kidding. “Ain’t” really isn’t a word, and you should not use it ever under any circumstance.

Feel liberated? I hope so.

Annie Mullowney

As a senior editor, Annie focuses primarily on developmental editing and drafting, helping clients sharpen their stories and tell them in a compelling way.

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