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.