Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Nutty Non-Rules of Grammar

Lisa McLendon, a copy editor for The Wichita Eagle who maintains the Grammar Monkeys blog, recently fielded a complaint from a reader about how the newspaper had used the verb "rise" in a headline. This led her down the path of documenting "nutty non-rules of grammar" that people often hold on to, despite appeals to common sense.

Recently I got a voice mail message from a reader saying that the verb "rise" could be used only with animate objects, and thus our headline "Speed limit may rise to 75 mph" was incorrect, and it should have said "Speed limit may be raised to 75 mph."

Turning aside the issue of changing a perfectly good active-voice sentence to a wordier passive, I was intrigued, because I'd never run across this "rule" before. After all, bread rises. The sun rises. No one seems to complain about those. So I turned to the bookshelf.

None of our dictionaries said anything about "rise" being restricted to animate subjects.

Our usage manuals cite "rise" in distinction to "raise," the former intransitive and the latter transitive. But I saw no rules limiting "rise" to certain classes of subjects.

The "raise" entry in one book reminded me of another "rule" I'd run across: "Raise" is for crops or livestock, "rear" is for children. That one merited a mention in Garner's, which said that "raise" is standard for children as well as farm commodities, and the phrase "born and reared" is "likely to sound affected" in American English.

After I posted the rise/animate issue on Twitter, grammar-book author June Casagrande replied, "That's one of the nuttiest non-rules I've heard, and I've heard a lot."

I've heard a lot, too, and it can be really tough to disabuse some folks of the notion that a particular grammatical point is "wrong" when they've labored under that pretense for years — or decades. But let's try.

For the record, these are NOT legitimate rules of English usage:

Don't split infinitives or compound verbs. Split away — there's no basis in English grammar not to, and it often sounds stilted or unnatural to work around this false prohibition. As Tom F. put it on Twitter, "Nuttiest are the people who still haven't realised that the infinitive, like the atom, can be split with productive effects."

Don't end a sentence with a preposition. The companion to the split-infinitive "rule," this one is also not a real rule. Prepositions in English are notoriously flexible, hiring themselves out as adverbs or encrusting themselves onto verbs like barnacles. True prepositions are best followed by objects, but for the rest, they're fine to end sentences with.

Don't start a sentence with a conjunction. Raymond W. and Christie Z. both pointed this non-rule out in Twitter posts. And they're right: it's OK to start a sentence with a conjunction, just don't do it with every sentence or it gets tedious.

Cakes are "done," but people are "finished." I got a message once from a reader claiming that "Are you done with that?" is incorrect. It's not.

Don't begin a sentence with the word "it." Although it can be a sign of bloated or less-direct writing, there's no grammatical reason not to start a sentence with "it." How could you rewrite Dickens? "The times were both best and worst"? This non-rule was shared by Casagrande, who wrote an interesting post about "the anticipatory it" here.

Don't use the passive voice. This "rule" is rampant, and all the more unfortunate because many people attempting to enforce it have no idea what constitutes the passive voice. Intransitive verbs are not passive. Verbs like "appear," "seem" and "become" are not passive. Sentences that contain an auxiliary verb are not necessarily passive.

Passive voice can occur only with a transitive verb, and it looks like this: The city was razed by aliens. (Active: Aliens razed the city.) The cake was eaten by the dog. (Active: The dog ate the cake.) These sentences are arguably stronger as actives, but sometimes you don't need or even know the agent (the "by" phrase) and the passive is fine. For example: The old general's book collection, once the finest in Springfield, has been lost over the years. Who knows who lost it? The important thing is that it's gone.

Paragraphs MUST have 5 sentences (topic, 3 support sentences, conclusion). Marilyn Bush LeLeiko sent this one in, and while that may be a good guideline if you're teaching junior-high students how to write compositions, it's not a rule for grown-ups.

Sentences must have verbs. Nonsense. Sentence fragments can quickly and emphatically get a point across. But staccato can get annoying quickly, so use fragments judiciously.

There are plenty more like these. But here's a real rule: Use good judgment and common sense in your writing, and keep the focus on clarity.


Lisa McLendon is Deputy Copy Desk Chief at the Wichita Eagle, where she also writes book reviews and coordinates the Grammar Monkeys blog and Twitter feed. She is the vice president for conferences of the American Copy Editors Society. She began her journalism career at the Denton Record-Chronicle in Texas after earning a doctorate in Slavic Linguistics from the University of Texas.


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Wednesday April 20th 2011, 3:06 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
I couldn't agree more, especially with your concluding "real rule"!

Just one little thing has me puzzled: Where is the "it" in the Dickens quote? I haven't had time to read Casagrande's post, maybe the answer's there.

Incidentally, "born and raised" is exclusively US English. In the UK this would be "born and brought up" (which, I believe, can also be used in the USA). To UK ears, "born and reared" sounds like dog or livestock breeders' language. Another UK alternative to "born and raised" is "born and bred". Now that might sound even more like dog breeding to people in the USA, but it has the charm of alliteration and balance (two one-syllable words) and has the extended meaning of being a real native of a place - with a string of local ancestors behind one.
Wednesday April 20th 2011, 5:17 AM
Comment by: Bernadette H. (London United Kingdom)
The opening line of Dickens' 'A Tale of Two Cities' 1859) begins: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...'

Here, 'It' begins not just a sentence but a whole book, and does so brilliantly - memorably exploding this particular non-rule.
Wednesday April 20th 2011, 8:23 AM
Comment by: langgang (Houston, TX)
If my temperature can rise, I guess my speed limit can too. About following the (non)rules - a writer is like a chef, a good one knows how to go beyond the cookbook rules to make something interesting and make it personal. The important focus is the communication; sometimes it calls for a bit more salt than the recipe.
fritz / www.patrikin.wordprews.com
Wednesday April 20th 2011, 11:01 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Oh my! As one who failed to learn grammar in school, I've struggled on my own for more than 50 years to catch on to what is going. (Why can't it be simple like --no, no, simple -- as mathematics. Even first-year calculus is simple.) Now you come along and kick these "rules" out the door. I don't know if a burden has been lifted or added. Am I free or do I have to start over? One thing for sure, I'm turning off MSWord Grammer Checker. It finds just about every "rule" you wrote about. BTW. must a comma always precede which and never preceded that?
Wednesday April 20th 2011, 11:53 AM
Comment by: Maija P.
While we are discussing grammar, please explain the difference between "lie" as in to recline, and "lay" as in to place something. There appears to be confusion among newscasters and others in the public eye; I believe it is caused by the word "lay", which happens to be the simple past of "lie", and "lay", which is the present tense of the transitive verb "lay".
And let's toss in the past participle while we are at it--"lain" goes with "lie", and "laid" goes with "lay". I am forever yelling at the radio when the speaker says he or she is "going to lay down and rest".
Wednesday April 20th 2011, 1:32 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Maija: We've tackled lie vs. lay here a few times -- try this Word Routes column for starters!
Wednesday April 20th 2011, 6:12 PM
Comment by: Lee S. (Tucson, AZ)
But, good writers know what they are doing. Rules are made to be broken, and non-rules perhaps should be respected. At least some of them some of the time. Mindless ignoring of "rules" like the distinction between which and that, or between lie and lay, or not to start sentences with "it" can get tiresome. I cannot recollect when the last time was that I became annoyed with anyone's correct grammar. Good writers do what they do deliberately, not because they do not know better.
Wednesday April 20th 2011, 7:45 PM
Comment by: j.r. P. (Tustin, MI)
I'm one of those who will likely never, ever get it straight as to whether I lay down or lie down. Or whether I have lain or laid down. Either way, I know what I did. That's what's important to me. The most important rule in the use of language is to accurately get the point across.
Sorry, Maija P. - even though you are my sister - you will likely never get it through my thick head which is correct. But I bet you still love me anyway. I hope.
Wednesday April 20th 2011, 11:09 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
First, j.r., you will always lie down -- unless you are a feathered sort of fauna which sprouts down. I cannot stand the sportscasters who have quarterbacks sprouting down all over the field! LOL That's a biggie with me, and I don't think that's in the area of a non-rule! (I hope not!)

The other non-rules... I'm here applauding the author. I particularly enjoyed seeing recognition of the beginning of sentences with conjunctions, and the using of sentence fragments.

Thank you so much for the non-rules. And I hope I haven't started trouble with my comment about 'lie' and 'lay'. I think we've been over this before, too, Ben!
Saturday April 23rd 2011, 8:43 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
"Sit" and "set" have already merged without much complaint. While people are distracted by whether inanimates may "rise" or only "be raised", others are cheerfully writing "mists raises from the river" and poker players say "I'll rise you", and no one writes screeds against it. "Lay" and "lie" are likewise in total confusion, possibly because this verb pair actually has a few actual uses of transitive-with-understood-objects, as "that hen lays well", making the possibility for confusion greater. Or possibly because, as so often happens, one example of a greater change ("hopefully" is a good example) somehow becomes a celebrated outrage while all the rest pass by unnoticed.

At any rate, I find it remarkable that no one claims any actual confusion - everyone always knows what the other person "should have said" because everyone always knows "what they meant". Which means the distinction has no actual meaning. Which means it's going to be really hard to keep it alive.
Saturday April 23rd 2011, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
ps - in case you're interested, in the paired English verbs where one is transitive and one intransitive, the intransitive always has a higher (more fronted) vowel - sit, lie, rise (set, lay, raise).

Also, bear in mind that many of these "wrong" usages are actually perfectly valid uses of English's middle construction, which is made by taking the theme (object) and using it as the subject of the sentence, eliminating the agent (subject) altogether - in fact, it CAN'T be expressed - and adding some sort of adverbial. A common example is "She doesn't frighten easily" which does NOT mean that she find it difficult to scare people, but rather that it is difficult to scare her.

So, widespread sentences like "the snow lays heavily on the hills", "Look at photos of snowy pines and bare winter saplings, study how the snow lays on the branches", or (from The Library of the World's Best Literature: Ancient and Modern by Edward Cornelius Towne - 1897) "and the snow lays terrible long on some o' thes'ere hills." may be perfectly good middle constructions rather than wrong intransitive ones.
Saturday April 23rd 2011, 8:18 PM
Comment by: Andrew L. (Espanola Canada)
The first sentence of your last paragraph made me smile. Years ago I was emphatically taught that a sentence should never begin with the word 'there' as in, there is, there are, there was, there were, etc. Because 'there are' states something exists it would be better to phrase your sentence: plenty more like these exist. For years I tried to follow this rule before coming to the conclusion that it was poppycock. There you go.
Sunday April 24th 2011, 11:20 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
Andrew L, your comment reminds me of one I read recently wondering if most peevers were people who believed that language existed solely to express propositions, with no emotive content or coloring possible - or at least allowed.
Wednesday April 27th 2011, 2:13 PM
Comment by: DebbieT (Cocoa, FL)
While many of the nonrules may seem old fashioned, the careful use of language is still important. Dangling prepositions have been mainstreamed, but so have a myriad other actions which were considered unacceptable. Rather than slide down a slippery slope at breakneck speed, why not slow down and savor our language by considering the nuances of meaning like a marathon runner negotiates a 10K run.

My former teacher once said, "You must learn and apply the rules correctly before breaking them." Once the skill is mastered, then artistic license is granted.

As with any body of rules, written or unwritten, a moderate amount of reason must be applied. One size fits all doesn't work with people anymore than it does with language, but let's not abandon the underlying purpose, which is to share ideas in a clear and pleasing manner.
Wednesday May 4th 2011, 4:30 PM
Comment by: WHIT T. (LA QUINTA, CA)
Debbie T. above notes that a former teacher of hers said the rules must be learned and applied correctly before breaking them. Until now, no one counseled me that artistic license had been granted.

If license is now granted, can one rely solely on one's own sense of clarity and euphony as a guideline to grammar? That seems like an invitation to grammatical anarchy, but I've always been guided more by whether a sentence "sounds" right rather than whether it conforms to specific rules.
Sunday April 22nd 2012, 4:39 PM
Comment by: sandy F.
The most surprising non-rule for me is that sentence does not need to have a verb. Haha, now in my English essays, I will have sentences such as "Hamlet hesistant and idealistic." and "Claudius dead, Getrude dead from Hamlet's irresolution.", and I will still be gramatically correct.

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