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When to Follow (and Flout) Grammar Rules

My mother student taught English before having kids, so I grew up with an appreciation for the difference between me and I as well as other fine points of the English language. None of her children would leave the house improperly dressed or with improperly punctuated homework. Obviously having good grammar skills helps us as writers, but this Grammar Girl podcast points out that grammar skills can also help you get a date and stay out of jail (seriously, give it a listen).

But even I will concede there are times when it's perfectly appropriate to ignore the rules of good grammar. For instance, dialogue sounds more authentic when it captures the true speech patterns of the person you're quoting. As Grammar Girl points out, it's all about context. You probably shouldn't get too cute and conversational if you're writing an annual report, but blogs and essays allow for a looser, more creative use of language.

Still, you don't want to look illiterate, so I'd be selective about what grammar guidelines to break and when to break them. These are some of the ones that (in my opinion) were made to be broken:

1. Never end with a preposition.
This is just silly. As Winston Churchill said, "that is the kind of thing up with which I will not put." Use common sense. If it sounds natural to end with a preposition, then do it. If it sounds stiff and formal (as it often does), then don't.

2. Always use a subject and a predicate.
Sometimes a sentence fragment can be effective in creating emphasis. Like this. Varying your sentence length and construction creates copy that is interesting to read and flows like natural speech. Don't let your memories of grammar school and sentence diagramming scare you away from sentence fragments.

3. Never start a sentence with a conjunction.
Like the rule about prepositions, this one can also hinder you from you writing in a clear, conversational style. But too many sentences starting with "but" or "and" can sound amateurish, so use it carefully for effect.

What do you think? When is it OK to break the rules? And what grammar rules should be left alone?Flickr photo by eli_reusch

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