Will the sour-faced, red-pen-wielding ol’ school marms please cover their eyes while I blaspheme?
Which grammar rules can you break?
- Fragments. In fiction and casual writing, fragments are perfectly fine. They are parts of sentences standing alone, and they can be used very effectively to convey the intended timing of the author. It’s how we talk much of the time. That said, don’t overuse so that the narrative sounds like choppy juvenile poetry.
- Split infinitives. This is the rule left over from Latin that says one cannot stick an adverb in between the “to” and the verb (the infinitive form). In Latin, you couldn’t do it because it was all one word. It was imposcompletelysible. Most of the time either the split or the undisrupted form work equally well: to run quickly vs. to quickly run; to cut carefully vs. to carefully cut. Unless you’re writing a formal paper for prescriptive grammar English prof, don’t sweat it.
- Ending phrases with a preposition. Who are you sending that to? vs. To whom are you sending that? Where are you from? vs. From where do you originate? Get real. Again, unless it is highly formal writing, stick with the way people actually speak (known as ” the vernacular”).
- Subject/verb agreement when speaking of unspecified gender. Each boy should leave his uniform in his locker. vs. Each child should leave their uniform in their locker. In the first sentence, we know we’re talking about boys, so we can say “his”. However, when the gender is unknown and you don’t want to have to say “his or her uniform in his or her locker”, it is generally acceptable to use their even though it is plural and “each child” is singular.
Which grammar rules do you keep?
- Don’t dangle modifiers. This is a clarity issue. If you don’t clearly assign a modifying phrase, it creates confusion. This is the error that makes the corny joke in Mary Poppins work: “I once knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith.” “Really? What was the name of his other leg?” (**snort**) In this bit, “named Smith” is vaguely placed. Is it the leg or the man that carries the name?
- Avoid run-on sentences (also known as comma splices). This is when you string together sentences without any form of punctuation more than the occasional comma. Besides the fact that it doesn’t allow your reader to mentally breathe (see that split infinitive; hear it roar), it also adds to confusion. Very few people can write a three-plus line sentence with correct grammar…and even if they can, modern readers don’t generally like them.
- Apostrophes & contractions. I’m a member of the APS (Apostrophe Protection Society). Not one of the militant chapters, mind you, but I have been known to scream. This has to do with things like differentiating it’s from its. (The former is the contraction of it + is, and the latter is the possessive form of it.)
There are more rules, of course. But these are ones that show up frequently with the green squiggly lines on your word processor. Now you know which ones to ignore.