Three English grammar rules you can break. Sometimes.

Written by Helen Selby

English grammar is a thicket of complex rules. But believe it or not, some of them can be pruned. Notice how we just started a sentence using ‘but’? There’s more where that came from. Read on to discover three major grammar rules it’s ok to break, occasionally.

Don’t use a comma before ‘and’

AKA, the Oxford comma, or serial comma. It’s the final comma in a list of items, and is absolutely needed to clarify meaning in some cases. ‘I’d like to thank my parents, Mabel and God,’ is different to ‘I’d like to thank my parents, Mabel, and God’. In the first example, it appears that Mabel and God are the parents. In the second, the parents, Mabel, and God are all things on a list.

Or take this more extreme example, from The Times: 



For simple lists, you can get away without it. For example, ‘I bought some apples, plums, pears and oranges’ makes perfect sense. 

Our advice?

It’s all about making sure the meaning is as clear as it possibly can be, so judge it on a case-by-case basis. 

Never begin a sentence with ‘and’

This rule is utter nonsense, taught to young children to stop them beginning every sentence with it. ‘And then we went to the library. And then we took out some books. And then we went for an ice cream. And then I fell over. And then we went home…’ 

Of all the grammar anyone is ever taught, this is the main thing they remember. Sorry people, it has to go. Using ‘and’ at the front of a sentence gives the copy a little punchiness. And then some.

Our advice?

Drop this rule. And move on.

Never split an infinitive

John Dryden invented this one back in the 17th century to make fellow poet and playwright Ben Jonson look bad. It’s based on the spurious notion that English should adhere to the grammar rules of Latin. Infinitives in Latin cannot be split, because they are a single word: habere, ‘to have’. In English, infinitives are made from two words – ‘to’ and the verb. Putting an adverb in the middle is often the best place for it: ‘to boldly go’ has a better rhythm than ‘to go boldly’. 

Style aside, a split infinitive is sometimes essential for the meaning. Oxford Dictionaries puts this quite nicely: ‘You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’] doesn’t have quite the same meaning as: You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’] 

Our advice?

Split infinitives as much as you like, in all but the most formal of styles. 

Learn more about grammar

There are plenty of online resources here are six grammar guides that we recommend.

Or if you’d rather enlist the help of professionals to spruce up the copywriting skills of your team, get in touch.