Not all grammar ‘rules’ are rules

English is the most important class students take in high school. It provides students with the opportunity to learn basic to intermediate reading, writing, speaking, analytical and comprehension skills. It’s the basis of the entire education system; without the skill students learn in English, they wouldn’t be able to learn anything else.

But how much of the information taught in our high school English classes was correct? As it turns out, some of the grammar ‘rules’ we were taught are not actually rules at all.

To understand why, here’s a quick history lesson. The term ‘grammar’ describes the way we use language and sentences to communicate the meaning we want. There are some people, called prescriptivists, who believe there’s only one way to be grammatically correct. When books started to become more accessible to everyone in the 18th century, prescriptivist grammarians wrote down their rules in books and sold them to the rich.

They literally made up the rules.

The rules the prescriptivists set were based on Latin, presumably to keep literacy within the upper class. Latin was taught at expensive grammar schools, so it’s easy to see why the prescritpivist ideas prevailed in our education system.

That being said, the English language has evolved over time, and the descriptivist camp, those who believe in grammar guidelines rather than rules, is now the dominate school of thought.

So, now we understand where grammar came from, let’s examine some of the things we were taught in high school English that was, in fact, wrong.

 

1.     You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction

Remember being told you could never start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’? Well, you totally can. While it’s certainly less accepted in formal or academic writing, the use of conjunctions to start sentences reflects the way we speak and is often used for effect when writing creatively.  

2.     Put a comma where you need to take a breath

This was something I distinctly remember being taught, and it wasn’t until I started studying creative writing at university before I realised this wasn’t true at all. This ‘rule ‘ simplifies a rather complex concept.

Commas are the punctuation mark most likely to be used incorrectly, largely because the comma can be used in so many ways. The comma can be used mechanically, like when writing lists, stylistically, like when writing creatively, and to separate grammatical sentence components.

It would take too much time to explain all the ways one can correctly use a comma, but putting them in where you take a breath just simply isn’t correct. If you’re interested in learning how to use a comma correctly, you should check out this article.

3.     Use more adjectives to make writing more descriptive

Adjectives can be a useful tool when writing, but they should be used sparingly. Not everything needs to be described with an adjective. For example, saying the mountain was humongous doesn’t sound nearly as nice as saying the mountain disappeared into the clouds. 

As Mark Twain said: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable.”

4.     Short stories must have a beginning, a middle, and an end

This was another thing I believed before starting university. While this is probably taught in schools to help less creative students, short stories don’t have to be told in a linear fashion. In fact, most good short stories are a little more complex than a beginning, middle and end.

5.     Adverbs are the words ending in ‘ly’

In case you’ve forgotten, adverbs are words that describe verbs; they tell the reader when, how and why the verb happened. In schools, we were taught adverbs ended in ‘ly’: run quickly, jump highly.

 

While this is true for the most part, there are also a lot of adverbs that don’t end in ‘ly’. For example, words like tomorrow and there can also be used as adverbs: run there, jump tomorrow.

There are a lot of complex grammar rules created by the prescriptivists, but a lot of them were written for the way language was used in their time and are no longer relevant. Language is a constantly evolving construct—it never stands still—and our grammar ‘rules’ need to evolve with the times.

Emma Johnson