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’? 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 starting every sentence the same way.

Which is fair enough, Nobody wants to read: ‘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…’ 

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

Our advice?

Drop this rule. And move on. (The King James Bible is crammed full of sentences starting with 'and'.)

Never split an infinitive

John Dryden invented this one back in the 17th century. He wanted to make fellow poet and playwright Ben Jonson look bad. It’s based on the notion that English should stick to the grammar rules of Latin.

Here's the reasoning: infinitives in Latin cannot be split. That's because they're a single word – for example, the Latin infinitive 'habere' means ‘to have’. But in English, infinitives contain two words – ‘to’ and the verb. Putting an adverb in the middle – splitting the infinitive – is often the right choice: ‘to boldly go’ has a better rhythm than ‘to go boldly’.

Just ask a certain starship captain.

Oxford Dictionaries has some good examples if you want more ammunition – photon torpedoes or otherwise.

Our advice?

Split infinitives all you like, in all but the most formal of styles. Even then, it's usually fine.

Learn more about grammar

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

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