Know the Rules (to Break)

Know the Rules

“That’s just the way it has always been done.”

How many times have you heard this expression? Did you ever take the time to stop and think about it? What about rules of grammar – does the old adage still apply?

In short, no.

The English language is constantly evolving. Every year, new words and definitions are added to the dictionary to account for developing terminology and shifting meanings. We adjust based on our culture, and those changes affect grammar, too.

Let’s consider these eight rules that are no longer “how it’s done”:

  1. Two spaces after a period.

    A certain generation of us, myself included, probably took a keyboarding class where the rule was that you always put two spaces after a period. Well, no more! You can thank the internet for this one, but the origin story starts with the typewriter.

    The problem with typewriters (well, one problem anyway) is that they use monospaced type, which produces text with a lot of white space between characters and words, making it difficult to immediately spot the spaces between sentences – hence the adoption of the two-space rule. But monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s, replaced with proportional typesetting.

    So, for all those old school folks out there – you know who you are – forget what you were taught and use a single space only.

  2. Avoid contractions in business writing.

    Back in the day, using contractions in business writing was deemed too informal, unprofessional. But, today, it’s all about audience. Contractions make your writing sound friendly and more accessible; they give the appearance you are actually “talking” to your reader. If that’s your intent (and, for proposal writing, we’d argue it is), then go for it.

  3. Paragraphs should have five sentences.

    Perhaps this is where all the issues with concise writing started. But, I digress. The real reason this old rule has changed is because we have changed – as a society.

    Thanks to basically every technological advancement in the past 30 years, our attention spans have decreased dramatically. Thus, while a paragraph of five sentences isn’t exactly arduous work, an entire proposal with equal paragraph lengths would be boring (not to mention visually uninteresting). You gotta mix it up!

    Plus, remember that different mediums (much like audiences) demand different rules. For instance, emails and blogs tend to use shorter paragraphs while novels, traditionally, stick with longer blocks of text.

  4. Add a comma everywhere you pause in a sentence.

    If you were taught that where you pause or breathe in a sentence indicates where a comma belongs, you’re not alone. However, you are wrong. Sorry.

    Nobody wants to be bogged down with all reasons why and where a comma belongs (or, if you do, we’ve done a blog on it before). For now, simply forget about this arbitrary rule.

  5. Don’t use “they” as singular pronoun.

    Remember back in the day when you’d read sentences like, “He or she is responsible for …” or “He/She will …”? Not only does this construction lead to awkward, clunky writing, but it’s also not very inclusive. The AP Stylebook (our team’s official textbook) adopted “they” as an approved singular pronoun back in 2017 and, when applicable, you should use it, too.

  6. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.

    This one dates back to 18th century English grammar books that based their rules on Latin grammar. Hear much Latin lately?

    Here’s one we see a lot: “… one your school can be proud of.” The grammarian would change it to, “… one of which your school can be proud.” I really don’t think I need to explain why things have changed.

  7. Never start a sentence with a conjunction.

    But why? And, also, who cares? We’re not suggesting you go completely off the rails with this one, but using “and” or “but” at the beginning of your sentence is just another way to mix up your writing so it better reaches your audience.

  8. Don’t split infinitives

    This is one you likely remember but still have no idea what it means. Well, good news. Ignore it (mostly). As we’ve stated several times at this point, it’s all about your audience. If you want to strategically split an infinitive because the sentence sounds better that way, go for it – we just did (and did it earlier, too).

RULES WERE MADE TO BE BROKEN

Pablo Picasso once said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

While we’re not condoning all rule breaking, it is important to stop and consider why you’re following a certain rule – and making sure your answer is not simply, “Because that’s way it has always been done.”

But, if you insist on following rules, here’s one that never changes: The salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork.

Recent Memos

Know the Rules
Douglas Deane

Know the Rules (to Break)

The English language is constantly evolving. Every year, new words and definitions are added to the dictionary to account for developing terminology and shifting meanings. We adjust based on our culture, and those changes affect grammar, too.

Read More »
Sandra Wells

Bloodcurdling Buzzwords

It’s October, which means it’s almost Halloween! Time for ghoulish goblins, wacky witches and menacing monsters!  I love all the scary aspects of the month,

Read More »
Elizabeth Burr

To be or not to be

If you’ve got kids in the house who absolutely hate their English teachers because they keep yelling at them to stop using “to be” verbs, this blog is for you (and them). Because I’m on their side.

Read More »