6 Old Grammar Rules That Are Finally Going Out of Style

by | Mar 4, 2021

The internet loves a good argument.

See: the 400+ comments on my piece on the Oxford comma debate, which devolved into everything from political jabs to commentary on the fairness of overtime laws.

Amid the many readers continuing to rail against my adoption of AP style on a blog I specifically say uses AP style, I found one observation in particular that made me pause. Some readers pointed out my use of a dangling modifier. And I confess: You caught me.

I also confess: I don’t feel terribly bad about it.

Which lead me me down the rabbit hole of a whole ’nother debate: When does a grammar rule pass into obsolescence?

Grammar rules we should just forget about already

At what point is non-standard sentence construction widely accepted as standard? Can we as writers loosen up on certain rules when general usage renders an “incorrect” syntax perfectly understandable to the average reader?

Hold onto your outrage, Internet. Tell your grammar checker tool to buzz off.

Here are six English grammar rules that are going out of style.

1. Never end a sentence with a preposition

Attempting to follow this rule can result in some painfully stilted sentences, like this gem attributed to Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.” (Sadly, this attribution is only anecdotal, but it’s still a gem.)

This rule stems from Latin, English’s ancient ancestor, in which sentence-ending prepositions simply can’t be done.

In modern English usage, however, there’s no reason to cling to this rule, unless you want your writing to sound more formal (or your characters to come across as pompous know-it-alls).

So the next time you wonder, can you end a sentence with a preposition? The answer should be, hell yes!

2. Never start a sentence with a conjunction

You know what kills me about this one? There’s no real basis for this rule except teacherly bias and a misplaced fear of sentence fragments.

According to David Crystal in The Story of English in 100 Words, teachers in the 19th century were annoyed with their students’ overuse of conjunctions as sentences starters. Rather than working to correct this tendency, they created a hard-and-fast rule against it, no doubt making their lives easier, but causing quite a headache for writers for centuries to come.

The truth is, there are different types of conjunctions. Subordinating conjunctions (like if, because and when) join a dependent clause with a standalone one. Break apart “If you build it, they will come,” and you have an independent clause that could be its own sentence (“They will come.”) and a fragment that doesn’t make sense by itself (“If you build it…”). That’s why it’s perfectly fine to start a sentence with “because.”

Coordinating conjunctions (like and, but and or) join two independent clauses together: “I was looking forward to the beach, but it rained all day.” Separate the clauses in these cases, and you still have standalone sentences, each with a noun and a verb: “I was looking forward to the beach. But it rained all day.”

While you don’t want all your sentences to be this abrupt, it’s OK to pepper some in for flavor.

3. Don’t use sentence fragments

Beginning a sentence with a conjunction will result in some sentence fragments.

As with any other “rule” on this list, this is a no-no for formal writing (i.e., articles in traditional publications, cover letters) but allowable for informal (i.e., blog posts, fiction).

One goal of informal writing is to sound more conversational, and like it or not, we use plenty of sentence fragments in everyday conversation. 

So. Add them in! Lean into it! Your writing will be more engaging because of it.

4. Never split infinitives

This one’s another holdover from Latin sentence construction. In Latin, an infinitive is a single word; it literally cannot be split. But English’s two-word infinitives can, so why shouldn’t they be?

Opponents argue the split infinitive is inelegant.

An infinitive is a two-word unit that expresses one thought, they hold, and splitting it up makes a sentence less readable.

But there are plenty of times when avoiding a split infinitive can lead to linguistic contortions that make a sentence clumsy or ambiguous. It can also change the impact. “To boldly go where no man has gone before” just doesn’t have the same ring as, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.”

Whether or not you split an infinitive is largely a matter of preference; it if makes a sentence smoother or more powerful, go for it.

Use as needed — without feeling bad about it.

5. Never use “who” when you should use “whom”

As Megan Garber argues in an Atlantic article titled “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” grammar rules are intended to clarify language to avoid confusion. And in many cases, “whom simply costs language users more than it benefits them.”

“Whom” has been falling out of practice for some time now. As a result, the majority of people don’t know how to use it, resulting in plenty of second-guessing, incorrect usage and less-than-smooth sentences. (Admit it, “Whom You Gonna Call?” hardly makes for a catchy song lyric.)

If you find yourself wrestling over “who” vs. “whom” in a sentence, your best bet is to rephrase the sentence to avoid the issue altogether. A reader may trip over, “With whom did you meet?”; a simple rewrite to, “Which person met with you?” solves the problem.

6. “They” is not a pronoun

Yes, using “he” as a default pronoun sounds sexist. But flipping between “he” and “she” in the same piece can be awkward, and using “he/she” brings the flow of a sentence to a grinding halt. Unless you want to use “it” as a gender-neutral pronoun — which seems insensitive, if not psychotic — that leaves you with “they.”

I get why this makes grammarians cringe. “They” is a plural noun, and we’ve twisted it into a faux singular noun in an attempt to be PC. It’s an imperfect solution, but until a widely recognized alternative comes along, we seem to be stuck.

What’s a writer to do?

Grammar, like language itself, is a constantly evolving creature.

Practices frowned upon in the past make their way into general acceptance as they become widely recognized. Contractions were once considered uncouth, but no one questions them now.

Just like spoken language, written language has dialects, and the adept user knows how to switch between them. An academic paper calls for a vastly different style than an article in a fashion mag.

The best rule of thumb when it comes to deciding whether to follow a seemingly antiquated grammar rule is to know your medium and audience.

Know the rules…so you can make an informed decision to ignore them.

That’s what being a pro is all about.

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Photo via  Charles-Edouard Cote/ Shutterstock