Being Good All the Time is No Fun
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Five-Minute Writing Tip # 38: Part One
My parents taught me to follow rules as soon as I could crawl. This rule-following was reinforced during my eight years at St. Mary’s Catholic School in West, Texas. But it wasn’t until after several years into my own teaching career that I learned the benefits of occasionally breaking rules—actually, more like finessing rules. After all, students are not all created equal. At times they should be cut some slack. Once I realized this, I became a much better, and happier, teacher. The same is true with some rules of grammar. Breaking the rules is okay as long as you know what you’re doing. But that requires understanding the rules in the first place.
Here are five examples of rules that can be broken if a skilled writer has a purpose.
1. Do Not Split Infinitives
An infinitive is a two-word verb form beginning with “to.” Examples: to live; to love; to laugh. When a word or phrase is placed between the preposition “to” and the verb, the infinitive is split.
“I want to before I get too old learn how to surf.” “Before I get too old” is the phrase that splits the infinitive “to learn.” This split needs to be corrected because the sentence sounds awkward.
“I want to learn to surf before I get too old.”
But splitting an infinitive is acceptable when the interruptive word is used for emphasis.
“I had to quickly put the car in the garage to keep it from hail damage.” The adverb quickly splits the infinitive “to put.”
2. Do Not End a Sentence with a Preposition
However, in some cases a preposition at the end of a sentence sounds less awkward:
“A classroom full of excited kindergartners is too nerve-racking to put up with.”
Putting “with” earlier in the sentence gets your point across, but it sounds more formal than what we are used to hearing:
“To put up with a classroom full of excited kindergartners is too nerve-racking.”
Another example—the first one is more conversational and the second is too formal.
“Whom do I submit my application to?”
“To whom do I submit my application?”
The awkwardness of trying to avoid breaking this rule is best demonstrated by this famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I cannot put.”
3. Avoid Beginning a Sentence with “But”
I remember getting a lower grade than I expected on a high-school essay because I broke this rule. My parents taught me to never question my teachers; otherwise I would have challenged the B-minus I was given. But this rule is often broken, and deservedly so. One of my writing gurus, William Zinsser, strongly agrees with me in his book, On Writing Well: “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s not a stronger word at the start.” He goes on to explain that when the mood is about to change, using “but” at the beginning of the next sentence works better than “however,” “therefore,” “nevertheless,” or “instead.”
Consider the following two examples from a hardboiled mystery I’m working on:
“He caught the scent of Coco Chanel and wondered how she afforded that expensive stuff on her meager salary. But, hey, with her looks and charm, there had to be a man.”
“He hoped to God that he’d have the chance to shake the missing author’s hand like all the other dopes waiting for her autograph. But hope gets an honest man nowhere.”
I could have used “nevertheless,” or “however” But those words have less impact.
I’ll be back next week with Part Two.
Kathleen Kaska, Marketing Director