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Dare to Break Some Grammar Rules

As a phrase, "rules of grammar" misleads would-be writers. We've seen visceral reactions to the term when teaching business writing in our courses and licensing program. Think of them more as "grammar guidelines" an even dare to break a few select rules, for less pressure but more effective messaging.

Once you get the hang of business writing, you feel more confident in both following—and occasionally breaking—the rules. One of the best ways to get to this point is with practice. The other is with careful reading and revision of your text to get an "ear" for how words sound and to learn that some rules are either outdated or amplified over the years, amounting to more myths than practical tools.

You might choose to break these rules:

Beginning a sentence with and or but. Whether considered outdated or just going too far, the old "rule" outlaws beginning a sentence with these words. But (see how we did that?) there are examples dating back to the tenth century of their use. It's more common than you think, with and and but sentence starts making up nearly 10 percent of all sentences.

And these quick and clear words are effective at letting the reader know the gist of what follows, plus they take little time on the internal tongue. Composing a phrase, or even using the word however to replace but simply stalls the reader's progress.

Ending a sentence with a preposition. Dating back to the old Latin language, specifically to the meaning of preposition as "stand before," it doesn't always translate to English. "Who should I give the report to?" is an example of ending a sentence with a preposition. Saying "To whom should I give the report?" is more formal, even stilted.

It's really up to the writer and the tone of the piece to determine which works best, and it's OK to break this old rule, as long as the context is clear. Sometimes, the preposition is part of a phrase, as in "All the last-minute changes are more than the team can put up with." Put up with is an accepted (if informal) phrase. Feel free to leave it as is, since good prose is hard to come by (we did it again – hard to come by is a common phrase).

Writing a one-sentence paragraph. Although it's not recommended to include lots of one-sentence paragraphs in writing, varying sentence and paragraph length gives your writing style. Sometimes, one sentence engages readers better than a paragraph delving into supporting details. Used sparingly, this "rule-breaking behavior" can grab or keep readers' attention.

Don't be afraid to use one-sentence paragraphs.

Splitting infinitives. A split infinitive occurs when the writer places a modifier between to and its verb: "to quickly go…" A throwback to Victorian times, split infinitives became a no-no in writing. This example probably sounds better as "to go quickly" to keep the verb phrase together. But split infinitives sometimes sound better than the "grammatically correct" alternative.

"It's hard to completely follow John's reasoning for the cost increase" technically splits the infinitive (to completely follow). Rewriting it according to the rule is a matter of personal choice and how the words flow, unless meaning disappears. "It's hard to follow completely John's reasoning for the cost increase" is a little awkward. If correcting a split infinitive feels nearly impossible—or sounds awkward—then don't bother. To quote Star Trek, "Boldly go where no man has gone before" and follow your instinct.

Finally, the serial comma. Few punctuation rules bring forth the passionate debate this topic can start. Some styles still favor avoiding a final comma in a series: He brought potato salad, raw vegetables and a dessert to the company picnic. In many other styles, especially technical ones, the serial comma goes in to avoid confusion.

Your best approach? Be consistent within your house style or a particular document, no matter whether you favor use of the comma. Then, use your own judgment. Occasionally, you might have to add the serial comma just to avoid confusion on the part of the reader.

Get help with grammar guidelines, plus the confidence to break the rules and actually improve your business writing. In our licensing program, we thoroughly train you or your colleague to provide in-help business writing help when and where you need it. Call us at 425.485.3221.

Here’s to good writing!


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