6 Old Grammar Rules That Are Finally Going Out of Style

6 Old Grammar Rules That Are Finally Going Out of Style

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 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…”).

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 

Filed Under: Craft


  • Penelope says:

    The fact that this article has been updated for 2019, but still leaves in erroneous information about “they,” is really frustrating. Singular they has been used in English since the 14th century. People use it every day without issue and have always used it. It’s not just a tool for “being PC” and it’s not an “imperfect solution.” Nobody cared about singular they until a bunch of stuffy 19th century “experts” decided it wasn’t right anymore. Like many of these grammar rules, singular they being incorrect was completely made up.

  • Alex says:

    Latin is not an ancestor of English. English is just heavily influenced by Latin, but doesn’t descend from it.

  • Chuck says:

    The first 4 “rules” aren’t even rules. They are just things taught by lazy English teachers.

    In fact, in regards to #4, there’s actually no such thing as a “split infinitive.”

    #6 is just plain wrong. We haven’t “twisted [“they”] into a faux singular noun.” Writers have been using “they” in the singular form for decades, and it is perfectly acceptable.

  • Jessica says:

    This may be hold for trade writing, but you would never get published in academic settings if you listened to this post!

  • I enjoyed this post – and the comments! There are so many opinions on the topic. I agree, it’s all about writing for your audience in the format they find acceptable.

  • Steven says:

    Kind of a stupid post. Who ever said “‘they’ is not a pronoun”?

  • Cheryl says:

    “’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.’” LOL! How true!

    And not ending sentences with prepositions is really difficult in the English language. At times, it becomes really difficult to pull that preposition into the middle of a sentence.

  • Mary Ann Bleich says:

    There’s ignorance, ‘illiterance’ and learned at mama’s knee. Four years of college doesn’t always erase what was learned at mama’s knee. Still say ‘lay down’, and ‘got’ is used liberally. When writing, I still pause at ‘who, whom’ and try not to dangle my prepositions but too lazy sometimes to back up and correct. Have no problem with the ‘to’s’ or the ‘there’s’ or the ‘its’.

  • Arianna says:

    It’s extremely amusing to (insert adverb to split the infinitive! fast!) read the horrified comments.

    As a non native speaker, most of those rules make absolutely no sense to me. In my native language, for example, starting a sentence with a conjunction is not wrong, since you can conjunct sentences that are divided by a full stop. And nevertheless pronouns changed (cfr rule 5 and 6) in my language too, as the accusative form is now the nominative form as well. We stopped using conjunctive in many prepositions. Libraries didn’t spontaneously combust as a result of this. Scandalous, don’t you think? Wait, there’s more! In German they are abandoning the genitive case (with dative overtaking its functions) and still people are able to understand each other and there’s no frogs raining from the skies!

    Language serves communication. If it fails to communicate, having sticked to the rules doesn’t make it any less of a failure.

  • Rod says:

    I think an obvious caveat might be that inside dialogue almost anything is allowed, even if the writer made up the charaters it is durely permissable to make up people who don’t speak proper.

  • I’ve been using a singular they for years. Teachers and professors would take points off for the use, and I would tell them that I’d rather be on the right side of the issue than have a perfect grade. If people can accept the singular usage of “you” then there is no reason why they can’t accept a singular they.
    Of course, this was all well before I discovered non-binary genders and started using they as a personal pronoun for myself.

  • CEOEditor says:

    Well, in “Which lead me me down ” it should be “which led me down.” 🙂

    On fragments, there still has to be a rhythm, an anchor from the complete sentence to the fragment to make it coherent. No sense.

    (See what I did there? As a book editor, I see plenty of times when folks simply drop in words that leave you scratching your head.)

    But when you have a feel for how to work the fragments, they are an awesome writing tool!

  • AAgh! Just because something is in common use does not mean it’s correct or even sounds good. A conjunction is a word joining two separate sentences. Your example,
    ‘“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.” ‘
    is, to me wrong because ‘but’ is used to join the sentences ‘I was looking forward to the beach,’ and ‘It rained all day’, The second sentence is not a sentence. ‘But it rained all day’ does not make any sense without the first sentence, but leaving out ‘but’, it does make sense.
    People are now forgetting about plurals. We have ‘there’s six of them’ instead of ‘There are six of them’ .Doesn’t make it right.

  • Jackie Wilson says:

    “They” is not a singular pronoun. It is most certainly a pronoun.

  • A quick note on the “Churchill” quote. (I don’t know if he really said it.) But whoever said it, should have said: “This is the sort of arrant pedantry with which I will not put up.” (Still awkward, but surely a lot better than the quoted version.)

  • Cheryl Potts says:

    important to know what your publisher expects. Some want you to follow good old fashioned rules, some you can debate with and do it your own way, and some do not care as long as it is good writing. Just know.

  • Margaret Smolik says:

    I am discouraged and frustrated by the mistakes you made above. For example, the following excerpt has several.
    “As a diehard Oxford comma loyalist, this ruling made my day.” Read literally, the construction of this sentence infers the court ruling under discussion is a diehard Oxford comma loyalist, not me.
    -If the article was written by you, then the reference is to yourself and not some other Oxford loyalist.
    -“infer” should be “imply”
    -“not me” should be “not I”

    -Also, do not begin a sentence with “which” unless it is a question. I will stop here.

  • Cynthia Mathews says:

    Correction on item #1: Latin is not the ancestor of English; English is of German descent. Rule #1 never worked well because it is not natural in English. It was imposed by 19th-century grammarians who wished to force exalted Latin structures onto this unruly mongrel we call English. (I say this with total affection.)

    • For a couple of centuries, the Royal Family and upper classes of England spoke French, a Romance language derived from Latin, and this transformed the English language in syntax, vocabulary, and style. English became a linear language, a Subject-Verb-Object language, instead of a language where parts of speech were signaled by suffixes or other changes in the word itself. The only remnant of Germanic syntax is words like they-them-their, or she-her-hers he-him-his. English is a mixture of the two types of language, but tends much more toward the Romance languages. German, for example, has three genders, while French has only two, and English has simplified to only one — we don’t have female tables and male telephones. You cannot look to either language for ironclad forerunners of today’s English. If we think it is annoying and upsetting to see language change, imagine what the parents of Shakespeare’s time thought, seeing their language change from Chaucer’s to Shakespeare’s. They must have railed against their children’s novel use of language, as did the intellectuals of the day, who criticized Shakespeare for inventing words and changing the way the language was used.

  • Reese says:

    Actually, Wendy, yes. There are a number of words whose pronunciation is changed based on the form/number of syllables in the form used. In the case of the word history, when using the article before the word, or would be A history… AN historical.
    The articulation and address on pronunciation of the H sound on the four syllable form is diminished… or should be, because the inflection is not on the first syllable as in ‘HIStory’ but on the second syllable as.. hisTORical.

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