If you’re a regular visitor to the blog, you’ll have previously come across lots of great writing advice. From the importance of stories to headlines that grab attention, our professional writers have shared dozens of hints and tips.
It’s instilled in us at an early age that good writing follows rules. We’re taught grammar, spelling and punctuation from a young age and these are lessons we remember for our entire lifetime. But, if you’re like me, those lessons were probably taught *insert number of decades* ago.
Things change. Rules change. Time moves on. And what it means is that many of these strict lessons you were taught at school don’t apply anymore – at least not for the type of content you’re typically writing.
So, as you no longer have to risk the wrath of Mrs Jenkins and a lunchtime detention, here are four writing rules you can ditch right now.
1. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction
Conjunctions are words used to connect words, phrases, or clauses. You can remember the most common ones using the mnemonic ‘fanboys’ (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).
Mrs Taylor in double English on a Tuesday morning, probably taught you that starting a sentence with one of these words was a sin.
But was she right?
If you’re writing an academic journal, you might want to think twice. For very formal writing you might want to consider sticking to this rule.
Most of us don’t spend our time writing 25,000-word white papers, though. So, for a normal blog or article, it’s no problem. It’s fine to start a sentence with a conjunction; indeed, you probably do it all the time.
2. You can’t end a sentence with a preposition
It probably says something about growing up in the south of England that I did one year of Latin at school. I can’t remember much of it – just enough to buy a paper.
In Latin, the rule is clear: non est terminus on damnationem additamento praepositionis quaerere.
Last time I checked, though, most of the ad hoc things we write about, e.g. financial services, aren’t in Latin.
What this means is that, in English, you are perfectly OK to end a sentence with a preposition.
Back in the day, it would have been wrong to say: “Who did you go to the shops with?”
(Ignore the fact that ‘going to the shops’ could well currently be a criminal offence, depending on the nature of your intended purchase).
Instead, you’re supposed to say: “With whom did you go to the shops?”
It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Indeed, Winston Churchill – the recipient of a Nobel prize for literature, no less – agrees.
He said that this rule was “the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
3. Paragraphs are important for structure
It’s raining outside, you want to get home to watch Thundercats, but instead you are listening to your teacher telling you that it is perfectly acceptable to write paragraphs long enough to fill multiple pages with big blocks of text.
Long paragraphs, organised sentences and lots of supporting evidence between assertions is the ‘correct’ way to write.
The generally accepted convention these days is that most paragraphs should be a maximum of three sentences.
It’s also a good idea to include some shorter paragraphs with only one or two sentences, using them to punctuate powerful ideas.
Why? It makes your content easier to read, for a start. According to a 2008 study by Jakob Nielsen, only about 20% of the text on the average page is read.
So, making your content scannable and helping readers pick out key points is critical.
And, short paragraphs also leave plenty of white space on the page, leaving your content clutter-free.
4. You can’t split an infinitive
You certainly can.
Infinitives are two-word verb structures. To go. To read. To do. To write.
You split them if you insert an adverb in the middle. To carefully write. To quickly read. And, in the motto of the Starship Enterprise, to boldly go.
The idea that infinitives shouldn’t be split most likely originated with Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury, in his 1864 book The Queen’s English. However, more than 150 years later, things have changed.
The University of Bristol say: “There is no rational basis for this rule; splitting infinitives is commonplace in spoken language, and even in written English it may be clearer or more elegant to do so.”
Take the phrase: “That was the only way to more than double his salary”. If you unsplit the infinitive, the sentence simply wouldn’t work.
…and one rule you should stick to
Language is a living, breathing and evolving concept. Rules and conventions change over time, and this explains why it’s now perfectly OK to use ‘Google’ as a verb and ‘omnishambles’ as a noun.
(Saying that, I do draw the line when it comes to train staff using the word ‘complimentary’ as a noun. “Do you want any complimentaries?” is a question that never fails to grind my gears).
To this effect, how you choose to write and what rules you choose to apply is largely up to you.
The one thing that is important though is consistency.
If you want to capitalise Capital Gains Tax in your writing, that’s fine by me. My request is easy, though: just make sure you apply the capitals every time you use the term.
Consistency makes your document look more polished and professional. Switching back and forth between various styles and formats can come across as sloppy to readers.
Each inconsistency you remove eliminates a barrier between your readers and their understanding. It also facilitates communication and thereby increases the likelihood that your writing will convey the message you intended.
There are lots of style guides online, or just design your own. Alternatively, premium versions of apps such as Grammarly will help you to maintain consistency.
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