Break the Rules…On Purpose

As a rule, writers should have a good grasp of the rules. Rules of grammar. Style. Usage. And the fundamental rule that you never walk the out man. Oh, wait, that’s baseball. It’s a good rule, though.

As a writer and an editor, I like the rules. Most of the time, they make perfect sense because they make things easier and clearer for the reader, which is one of the keys to good style. For example, whereas I find it wise and useful to agree with Steve Laube quickly and completely in all things, there is one important area in which we disagree. You see, he has publicly (oh, the shame!) accepted the singular “they” (see this blog post), which I consider an abomination. There’s always room for disagreement among friends and colleagues, but in this matter, I happen to be right, and he happens to be insane.

Still, I’m willing to grant that there are times when the tried-and-tested rules of grammar, style, and usage are broken…wisely and effectively. Not by Steve, but by other people. So, I asked my writing friends on Facebook to reveal what grammar or writing “rule” they sometimes break, intentionally and purposefully.

For example, I learned in school (yes, there were schools when I was younger) that a paragraph should always comprise more than one sentence.

So much for that.

Diana Sharples answered, “I break a lot of rules as I execute the teenage voice of my characters. Starting with contractions. Fragments. Run-on (especially for girls when they’re excited). And I ‘might could’ use some southern jargon that gives some editors fits.”

Well, sure. In fiction. What about nonfiction?

Steve Simms says he breaks the rule that says one should use a semicolon only to separate thoughts that could stand as complete sentences on their own. “Instead,” he says, “I like to use a semicolon as if it is a ‘major comma’—kind of a ‘comma exclamation point.’ What is it about guys named Steve?

Janet McHenry, a high school English teacher for twenty-six years, confessed, “I often start a sentence with a conjunction because readers expect both fiction and nonfiction (I write both) to be more conversational than they were in the past.”

Carol Ashby admits to both “ending a sentence with a preposition and beginning a sentence with a conjunction (and or but). I published scientific articles for years, and formal rules were always applied. It took me at least a year writing fiction to stop cringing when I started a sentence with But instead of However.

Shena Ashcraft commented: “I love short sentences. And incomplete sentences. And breaking rules, as a rule. Seriously.”

Sara Beth Williams added, “I also love sentence fragments. It creates a more unique and realistic sense of personality in my opinion, especially in internal dialogue. When it comes external to dialogue, rules are meant to be ignored.” Really. And she’s not even named Steve.

Beth Brubaker goes even further, confessing a love for “one-word sentences. Seriously. And making a series of them to prove a point. I’m. Not. Kidding.” I. Might. Throw. Up.

Finally, Yolanda Smith admits to breaking the “Who vs. whom” rule. “I love using whom,” she says, “but apparently everyone else thinks it sounds stuffy.” I must confess, too. Occasionally, when I knew I should use whom, I used who instead, not so much for fear of sounding stuffy but because I was pretty sure whom would compete with rather than support what I was trying to say, depending on whom my reader was.

Your Turn:

What about you? Are there rules you break…knowingly and to a good purpose?


58 Responses to Break the Rules…On Purpose

  1. Avatar
    Bryan Mitchell April 3, 2019 at 5:03 am #

    I’m like a 2 Year old with baby powder on new carpet when it comes to breaking rules. Unfeeling as I f to make many mistakes. When I make them on purpose, it’s usually with dialogue.

  2. Avatar
    Maco Stewart April 3, 2019 at 5:21 am #

    I agree with Brian. People (and characters) talk the way they talk, and that needs to be realistic (it actually happened, in the theater of my mind, right?). In the narrative, rule number one is Do not remind the reader she or he is “reading,” and the smoothest narration usually uses good grammar. For internal dialogue or monologue, we’re back to realism. So the “rules” vary, according to me (I was going to say “in my book,” but that, although true in both senses, seemed too complex). 😏

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler April 3, 2019 at 5:48 am #

      The utility of “It actually happened, in the theater of my mind” depends a bit on the state of your mind. 🙂 That said, I agree that in dialogue (internal or external) the rules are subject to the character’s character. 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Debby April 3, 2019 at 5:26 am #

    I write a LOT with “And” and “But” starting my sentences. A lot! (I should know better as an English teacher.) But, in reading the real Jesus Pages the other day (ie, the Bible) I was encouraged by Luke 1: And. But. And. But. They just about start every single verse; and then a sprinkling of “For”s in there every so often. I break a lot of rules and if it bothers an editor, I let him/her edit them out. My writing “voice” just comes out like that and I’d prefer to keep it that way.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler April 3, 2019 at 5:49 am #

      Debby, don’t get me started on grammar rules in Bible translations. There’s even one that uses the singular “they!” Oh boy.

      • Avatar
        Debby April 3, 2019 at 6:15 am #

        Bob, if I try to speak perfect grammar in real life, I can get strange looks. You have to balance what is the vernacular (and accepted, even if it’s grammatically incorrect) with that of always being the “schoolmarm.” When I write, the way things flow from my fingers is very different from how I speak. Maybe there are two Debbys?

        (And notice I have purposely left off the apostrophe between the “y” and “s” because it is NOT possessive, but plural, and I think using that apostrophe incorrectly is the most egregious grammatical error of all – well, today anyway.)

    • Avatar
      Jennifer Mugrage April 3, 2019 at 10:08 am #

      In Koine Greek, it is perfectly grammatical to start sentences this way. Some Bible translations try to preserve some of the narrative flavor of the original.

  4. Avatar
    Vie Herlocker April 3, 2019 at 5:54 am #

    Stay the course against the Steves, Bob! Singular “they” and renegade semicolons? Never! (But an exclamation point here and there is a rule I break in emails and comments.)

  5. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 3, 2019 at 6:28 am #

    I never break a rule of writing;
    I can’t ever miss,
    Not that I’m in expertise delighting
    but ignorance is bliss.
    You can’t break what you do not know
    so like a free-range cow
    in deciding, “Where do I go?”
    I care more for What than How.
    Fences are for lesser souls
    and advice need not be heeded;
    I aspire to lofty goals
    where precision is not needed.
    In sleeping through every English class
    I fell through grammar’s looking-glass.

  6. Avatar
    Sy Garte April 3, 2019 at 6:38 am #

    My problem is the passive voice, which is the rule in scientific publications (“The solution was added…”) and which drove the editor of my first book nuts. It’s still a struggle, but I am managing it better now. So sometimes rules change dramatically depending on genre (as mentioned by others).

    It should be noted that the passive voice is not strictly forbidden in contexts other than scientific communications, but it is certainly frowned upon. One feels this is appropriate.

  7. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver April 3, 2019 at 6:42 am #

    Actually, for years I avoided the use of the singular “they” but recently realized that it solved the problem of being politically correct by laboriously saying, “he or she” all the time.

    Please forgive while I climb on my soapbox here: If he or she gets offended because a writer fails to use he or she when writing about a topic, then he or she should put on their big boy/big girl pants and get over it.

    See what I mean? Wouldn’t the use of singular “they” fill in a gap there? Just a little?

    • Avatar
      Sharon K Connell April 3, 2019 at 7:13 am #

      Exactly! Thank you, Roberta.

    • Avatar
      Renee Garrick April 3, 2019 at 1:30 pm #

      Roberta, I understand what you’re saying. Using “he or she” can get really clunky. When I’m editing, I sometimes recommend using plural like this (borrowing your example): If readers get offended because a writer fails to use “he or she” when writing about a topic, then they should put on their grown-up pants and get over it.
      Sometimes it works. Sometimes not.
      (Admittedly, “grown-up” doesn’t flow as well as “big-boy” or “big-girl.”)

  8. Avatar
    Scott Rutherford April 3, 2019 at 6:46 am #

    Good post, as always. Steve is correct on the use of the singular they. Frankly, it’s something we all do in regular, everyday speech anyway if we’re not overthinking it.

  9. Avatar
    Daria Doshrelli April 3, 2019 at 6:48 am #

    I’ll admit to being a rule breaker in my old age. In ancient times I always did things by the book.

    Even some fiction readers seem to have trouble comprehending that sentence frags and such are not to be used as ammo to prove just how terrible the writer is. Many times the writer did it on purpose but not everybody gets it.

    Dealing with rule lovers is one of the many joys of publishing your work instead of just having opinions about the way other people write. Sigh.

  10. Avatar
    Nora April 3, 2019 at 6:49 am #

    I have one thing to say. I love fragments. For fiction.

  11. Avatar
    Jennifer Mugrage April 3, 2019 at 6:52 am #

    1. In dialogue, of course. Fragments, usually, because that is the way people speak, especially when they are having a difficult conversation.

    2. The rules about not ending sentences with a preposition and not splitting infinitives are both rules that were imported from Latin and unnaturally grafted on to English. English is a Germanic language, so it has phrasal verbs that consist of verb + preposition. (German has “separable verbs” that go like this: verb + any other material in the sentence + preposition WHICH IS PART OF THE VERB at the end.)
    It’s physically impossible to split infinitives in Latin because the infinitive is one word. In English, the infinitive consists of “to” + verb, which makes possible all kinds of nifty constructions unique to English, such as “to boldly go.”

    3. Even stuffier than “who” vs “whom” is “It is I” or “it is she.” This is another rule imported from Latin. In Latin, if you have a linking verb, what follows it has to be in the Nominative case just like the subject. In spoken English, the noun that follows a linking verb is treated more like a direct object because of its position in the sentence.

    • Avatar
      Thomas Womack April 3, 2019 at 1:02 pm #

      Thanks for sharing this, Jennifer. I hadn’t realized that many unnatural-seeming “rules” for English actually derive from an perhaps unwise attempt to conform it to Latin standards. Good to know.

      • Avatar
        Jennifer Mugrage April 3, 2019 at 5:55 pm #

        Glad I could help.

        I’m corrupting Bob’s readers, one at a time. 🙂

  12. Avatar
    Barbara Ellin Fox April 3, 2019 at 6:56 am #

    Thank you for a mind stimulating post. It got me off the procrastination trail this morning.

    I like to know the rules before I break them which is taking some work since I’ve been out of school for a very long time. Breaking rules on purpose is freeing. I hate breaking them by accident. I write dialogue the way a person would speak and really, when you listen to actual conversation today, well…

    In many cases narratives are easier to read when they flow more conversationally. Blogging is a prime example of this. Readers want to feel that you are talking directly to them. It’s more personal. As far as non-fiction goes, simplicity and clarity go a long way toward developing followers.

    Broken rules are carried too far when the reader is forced to stop to try to decipher your sentence in order to enjoy the story. I see that more lately, and the sense is that the author is trying to impress with their creativity and has forgotten the story.

  13. Avatar
    Sharon K Connell April 3, 2019 at 7:11 am #

    When it comes to fiction, I write dialogue the way people actually speak. That’s mainly where I break the rules. If you use all the grammar rules in writing dialogue, how will your reader be immersed in the story? It drives me crazy when I read a book where the dialogue is formal and stiff. I want to take a pen and change the ‘I am’ to ‘I’m’ or the ‘you are’ to ‘you’re’ because that’s what I’m thinking while reading. Unfortunately, I start thinking so much about the unnatural writing of the dialogue that it distracts me from the story line.

    In my narrative, however, I follow the rules. In that way, the reader can tell if the character is having a thought in their natural way of thinking, or if the author is trying to ‘tell’ them something they need to know (oh, the horrors of it…’telling.’ Yes I do at times briefly ‘tell’ what’s happening to either move the story along or add variety).

    To add insult to injury where grammar sticklers are concerned, I also begin sentences with conjunctions. Again, it’s the way people talk. But (hee hee), I try not add them too often so they don’t make the reader nauseous.

    Bob, you should read what Merriam-Webster has to say about the singular ‘they.’

    “One common bugbear of the grammatical nitpicker is the singular they. For those who haven’t kept up, the complaint is this: the use of they as a gender-neutral pronoun (as in, “Ask each of the students what they want for lunch.”) is ungrammatical because they is a plural pronoun.

    In an 1881 letter, Emily Dickinson wrote ‘Almost anyone under the circumstances would have doubted if [the letter] were theirs, or indeed if they were themself.’ People have used singular ‘they’ to describe someone whose gender is unknown for a long time, but the nonbinary use of ‘they’ is relatively new.”

    As with so many writing rules, things change. Today, it sounds normal to use the singular ‘they,’ and because I like my readers to enjoy what I write, I use it. What I don’t want is to have my reader uncomfortable while reading my books. Most readers are not grammarians.

    • Avatar
      Jennifer Mugrage April 3, 2019 at 8:31 am #

      Thank you for this, Sharon. I remembered that the singular they went way back in English usage, but I didn’t have the documentation.

      Every language needs a pronoun for generic situations. I think it’s a convention similar to “there is.” Standard English says “there is” to indicate that something exists, but some dialects say “it is” as in “It’s an accident on I-20.” German for “there is” is “es gibt”, literally “it gives.” And French is “il y a.”

  14. Avatar
    Lynne B Tagawa April 3, 2019 at 7:31 am #

    Hate the singular they. However, if you won’t trouble me for semi-colon use in fiction (and a few other misdeeds), I won’t trouble you for your “theys”.

  15. Avatar
    Marilyn A Turk April 3, 2019 at 7:46 am #

    Sometimes I use fragments. Or start a sentence with a conjunction. But my characters don’t always think grammatically, and since I’m in their head, I write the way they think. Which drives my some of the folks in my Word Weavers group crazy because I’m breaking the rules. So I must be a rebel.

    • Avatar
      Daria Doshrelli April 3, 2019 at 8:30 am #

      I am now a firm believer in doing what works for the intended audience.

      The more I work on targeting my market, the more I see it as necessary, not only to get the right readers hooked, but to cunningly unhook the readers who will not like my style. All this so the wrong crowd will never even look at my books and therefore a happier Daria with a smaller amount of useless feedback, fewer negative reviews due to style preference.

      This post seems to support my mad scientist theory. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

  16. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson April 3, 2019 at 8:11 am #

    Would be worthwhile to read a bit of The Road by Cormac McCarthy to see how he broke an insane amount of grammatical and punctuation rules in that book to intentional and I think good purpose. No quotation marks in the entire book. Basically no paragraph indentations. Typeset like a blog post. Pulitzer prize winning book.

  17. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 3, 2019 at 8:35 am #

    Of all the rules I’ve broken,
    there’s a thing my doctor said.
    Five years ago he’d spoken:
    “Next year you will be dead.”
    I’ve had four years of gravy
    with ice cream on the side;
    this unlikely life was savory
    but what will now betide?
    I’ve been a rebel with a cause,
    but now the cause is losing
    in the face of God’s immutable laws,
    in a manner not my choosing.
    It’s been four good years on the lam,
    but now I ask the mercy of the Lamb.

  18. Avatar
    Janet Ann Collins April 3, 2019 at 9:01 am #

    English is a living language so it keeps changing. Rules from the 1800s or even the 1950s don’t have to be followed now. If our language were not changing it would be a dead one. Anyone care to write in Sanskrit ?

    • Avatar
      claire o'sullivan April 3, 2019 at 8:34 pm #

      amen on the rules comment. It’s difficult to appreciate a book so outdated yet hamfisted by writers/editors/publishers stuffed into sardine suits.

      As for Sanskrit…

  19. Avatar
    Thomas Womack April 3, 2019 at 9:03 am #

    It’s certainly seems true that not all rules are created equal, especially when it comes to how English-speakers communicate in writing. Some rules (like no sentence starting with contractions, no split infinitives, no comma splices, no prepositions to end sentence with) seem clearly to be somewhat unwarranted and illogical preferences of “authorities” from the past (especially teachers and editors) who focused more on dispensing and maintaining “rules” (the more the better) than on the truest and most helpful principles of clear written communication — principles which frequently enough defy the rules. In our writing, many of us will often put rules (instead of clear communication) in the driver’s seat, failing to realize that in many circumstances a conventional “rule” will hinder clear communication instead of promoting it. I don’t think grammar can ever be a hard science, try as many like to make it so. It seems to be rather a living, breathing, changing thing, and perhaps the better we realize that, the better our writing will be. I suppose the real test is never “Did I follow the rules?” but rather “Did I clearly communicate, without distracting or confusing the reader?”

    • Avatar
      Jennifer Mugrage April 3, 2019 at 10:05 am #

      Yes. See my rant above how some of the less sensical rules come from Latin and are not natural to English.

      Have you heard the quote, attributed to Winston Churchill, that not ending sentences with a preposition is a rule

      “Up with which we should not put”?

      I mean, that follows the rule, but it is NOT an English sentence.

  20. Avatar
    Damon J. Gray April 3, 2019 at 9:28 am #

    For true. For true. I knowingly violate a number of rules.

    Just recently, I have been been caught using the single sentence paragraph for emphasis, and I confess here and now that I cringe every time I do so.

    I’m totally on-board with Steve Simms and our use of the semi-colon as a comma on steroids.

    I’m violating rules in response to critiques telling me that my writing is too “professorial.” I need to “warm up” my writing. Rule breaking helps me do that.

  21. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott April 3, 2019 at 9:33 am #

    I write non-fiction in a conversational, easy-reading style. Words like “gonna” and “just sayin'” sneak into my text–sometimes, if I’m in the mood, I let them stay.

  22. Avatar
    Catherine April 3, 2019 at 9:48 am #

    Living languages, it seems, are typically subject in one way or another to the currents of popular use. Perhaps of even greater interest is what the nature and direction of the change reflects within a given culture, including the societal forces in play and the implications thereof. Could language be one of the canaries in the proverbial coal mine?

  23. Avatar
    Colleen K Snyder April 3, 2019 at 9:56 am #

    Since the subject is writing and breaking rules: how many of you will capitalize “He” when referring to the Lord? He, His, Him, the Word… is it “proper” to do so (I feel uncomfortably disrespectful when I don’t!) or is this a “rule” we can bend/break??

    • Avatar
      Renee Garrick April 3, 2019 at 1:39 pm #

      Even the Christian Writer’s Manual of Style generally recommends using lowercase when using pronouns referring the the Lord. Even so, I learned quite young that using caps in these cases was a special way to show respect to Him. It’s a difficult habit to break. Even harder than using one space instead of two after a sentence. But that’s for another blog post . . .

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler April 3, 2019 at 1:43 pm #

      It doesn’t matter at all whether you use upper case or lower case pronouns referring to God, as that’s something that editors (of both magazines and books) change to conform to their “house style.” However, it IS important that, whichever you do, you do it consistently in your manuscript.

  24. Avatar
    Jennifer Mugrage April 3, 2019 at 10:06 am #

    I thought it was legitimate to use semicolons to separate items in a list when the items in the list were long or contained commas within themselves.

    • Avatar
      Renee Garrick April 3, 2019 at 1:41 pm #

      Indeed, when the items contain commas themselves.

  25. Avatar
    David Young April 3, 2019 at 10:50 am #

    Jerry Jenkins, possibly the most successful Christian writer of our day, believes single character Point of View is sacrosanct. He says it, “You need to understand P.O.V., which I agree with. But he also says, “If you break the rule, editors will know you can’t write.” My first novel was
    in an omniscient point of view. And more important to me, my favorite books, Narnia, are in omniscient.

    • Avatar
      Jennifer Mugrage April 3, 2019 at 5:54 pm #

      And Dostoevsky also writes with an omniscient voice with an ensemble cast, and it works really well.

      My first novel was told in the first person. For the second one, I tried an omniscient narrator. I like the omniscient voice when there are misunderstandings happening between characters but we want the reader to be in the know.

      Bwa-ha-ha! I am an omniscient narrator! I can do whatever I want!

  26. Avatar
    janis hutchinson April 3, 2019 at 10:52 am #

    So happy Bob is offering his fixations on rules. Love this one on the Singular They. Even though my m/s is nonfiction, sometimes saying he or him instead of they, sounds so stuffy and abnormal. Nevertheless, going back through to do a global and see if I can change a few to the correct way. Checked the CMOS. They are with Bob on formal writing, although they are willing to make a few exceptions:
    *Chicago accepts this use of singular they in speech and informal writing. For formal writing, most modern style and usage manuals have not accepted this usage until recently, if at all. CMOS 17 does not prohibit the use of singular they as a substitute for the generic he in formal writing, but recommends avoiding it, offering various other ways to achieve bias-free language. … Context should be a guide when choosing a style, and the writer’s preferences should always receive consideration.*(re their 17th edition)

  27. Avatar
    Kay Turner April 3, 2019 at 11:01 am #

    This is so great! I feel permission oozing between my fingers. Just itching to be turned loose. And the humor? Oh, yes! I’ll take another serving, please.

  28. Avatar
    Rebecca LuElla Miller April 3, 2019 at 11:03 am #

    The one that I’ve come to slowly in my writing and editing (and I was a secondary English teacher for over 30 years) is “joining” two independent clauses with a comma. No. Commas separate. That “sentence” is actually a run-on. But even Chicago Manual of Style says this animal is acceptable under certain conditions, specifically in fiction and in dialogue. Well, OK, but I still think it’s breaking the rules.

  29. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D April 3, 2019 at 11:29 am #

    Bob, I cringe over the singular “they” and refuse to let me students use it. That said, in my fiction writing, I do occasionally write fragments (on purpose!) and sometimes my characters end sentences with prepositions, but that is because people talk like that. Great blog posting (see, you have trained me not to just call it a “blog”!).

  30. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan April 3, 2019 at 11:46 am #

    How I wish there was an emoji to insert. All of the above with the exception of Making. A. Point.

    Short fragments are great for action. One’s character doesn’t think, ‘Golly, I should block that knife coming at me.’

    My sentences tend to be shorter than average writers, especially in dialogue. And I start sentences with conjunctions. Ha. My grammar makes me cringe so self-editing and then paying for a good editor is part and parcel (I use cliches in dialogue on occasion) of the writing/honing process.

  31. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan April 3, 2019 at 1:09 pm #

    I wonder, is there anyone here who uses Strunk and White in one hand and Spunk and Bite in the other? It’s a great way to bend/break rules. Of course, two more hands would type…

  32. Avatar
    Renee Garrick April 3, 2019 at 1:17 pm #

    I’m big on using fragments for effect. One-word sentences too. See? Especially when writing fiction or ad copy or comments like this one.

  33. Avatar
    Toni C Haas-Williams April 3, 2019 at 7:17 pm #

    I love this post because it validates a point to which I’ve long subscribed–the best punctuation is a means of expression, emphasis and individuality as both stand alone and enhancement. The key to using rule-breaking this way is to exemplify correct, standard usage in the flow of your writing, and in this way assure that your “anomaly” screams in neon when you break the norm to make a point. Because… what’s important?

    The message.

    Thanks, Bob.

  34. Avatar
    Regina Merrick April 4, 2019 at 10:42 am #

    I have a penchant for beginning lines of dialogue with “so,” which my editor ALWAYS takes out. Funnily enough, I often begin sentences – in speaking – with “so!” LOL!

    • Avatar
      Damon J. Gray April 4, 2019 at 11:01 am #

      That’s like a “Therefore…”

      (I wrestle with that as well)

  35. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan April 4, 2019 at 12:15 pm #

    ha! our dialogue in real life is ramble-shamble, we make up words, smush every rule to get to a point, and follow tangents that have nada to do with anything.

    My writing (first draft at least) follows my brain, and as I rewrite, I realize that 100,000 words are simply not needed, and the majority of them are the so, therefore, just, adverbs, prepositions at the end of sentences, etc.

    Rewriting these to sound natural, retain the character’s thoughts (because who cares what people say in dialogue, it’s real life, however, I cut much out to cut my word count.

    I have a love/hate relationship with Prowriting Aid, which points out everything. One can change some things i.e. don’t mess with my dialogue! But it’s thorough which means time-consuming.

    I’ve cut out 10,000 words. This will cost less in the end for an editor. So… much of my normal dialogue is rewritten. Bend and break some rules, but I figure probably not all. Even here I am allowing folks to cringe at my rambling…

  36. Avatar
    Lillian April 6, 2019 at 7:13 pm #

    I’ve decided not to break the rules until I know what rules I’ve broken.😉

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