Pop quiz, hot shot! How many of the old, conventional writing rules do you break on a daily basis? You probably know the ones I’m talking about. These are rules like:
- Never start a paper with a question.
- Never start a sentence with “and” or “but.”
- Never end a sentence with a preposition.
- Paragraphs must be a minimum of five sentences.
There are countless more – especially if you’ve been taught by English teachers who are intense about the right and proper way of doing things. (That’s code for doing things their way!)
The truth is, there are some hard and fast rules of the English language. For example a possessive is shown with an apostrophe (the girl’s house), but the writing rules above are actually a few steps down below guidelines – they are conventions that have survived from generation to generation. Not rules.
Consider for a moment the most celebrated writers of the classics you suffered through, er, enjoyed in English class. You read through the story or novel and often the teacher will sigh and point out the beauty of the language…in a series of run-on sentences. Or perhaps you enjoy a text only to realize there are only two sentences in a paragraph. Don’t get me started on famous, respected authors – the gods of the English classroom – and their love of “and” and “but” in the beginning of a sentence.
The point here is simple, English teachers have been feeding you lines for years. I can say this truthfully because I’m an English teacher. Even I have to step carefully at times – there is another English teacher I work with who drills these same rules into her students year after year. Simply these are rules I disagree with and help my students overcome.
The old rules of English can’t really hurt you, especially if you’re a relatively new writer, as most high school and college students are, but they aren’t necessary. The rules of writing are made to be broken.
Starting with a question.
You don’t want to start a paper with a boring or inane question. “Have you ever wondered why the sky is blue?” But there is no problem at all starting with something that intrigues a reader. “What would it be like to wake up under a fuchsia sky?” Questions fall into writer’s style and that varies for different essays and pieces.
Starting with “and” or “but.”
This is a biggie and there is a good likelihood that someone will argue with my point here, and that’s fine. English is an evolving language after all. There is no rule about how you start a sentence. The true rule to a complete sentence is that it must contain a subject and a verb. That’s it. You can arrange your subject and verb any way you’d like in the sentence and add conjunctions and clauses to your heart’s content.
One point, however, should be noted. If you’re going to use either “and” or “but” as the first word in your sentence, it should be done deliberately for voice or style. Your thoughts will likely sound choppy and childish otherwise. If you’d rather not break convention, simply use a classier term like “however” or “also”, which are surprisingly encouraged where the common cousins are discouraged in English classrooms.
Never end a sentence with a preposition.
It happens. This particular “rule” dates back to the 17th century when it was argued that Latin didn’t allow for a preposition to fall at the end of a sentence so English shouldn’t either. I took a couple years of Latin in high school. I can assure you that English and Latin are not the same language and do not follow the same patterns nor have the same rules.
That being said, you can usually rephrase a sentence to be clear and more concise without ending with the preposition. But sometimes you just can’t. And you shouldn’t make a weird sentence just for colonial conventions.
Paragraphs must be a minimum of five sentences.
I have a huge problem with this one. I shudder when I flip open an old text and look at paragraphs that cover an entire page in a go. There is no way that you can convince me that a paragraph really needs to be twelve long, complex sentences long.
Perhaps it’s the changing times or the influence of the internet, but this rule needs to be modified or simply ignored in our modern age. Magazines and newspapers have always followed a more practical rule of one to three sentences per paragraph. It seems only English teachers insist on absurdly long paragraphs. Break it up people! Not only is writing easier to read, but your ideas will be more visibly separated on the screen – or the page – and thus more defined.
All of this begs the question: Where do you fall on the spectrum of writing rules?