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6 Old Grammar Rules That Are Finally Going Out of Style

The internet loves a good argument.

See: the 400+ comments on my piece on the Oxford comma debate, which devolved into everything from political jabs to commentary on the fairness of overtime laws.

Amid the many readers continuing to rail against my adoption of AP style on a blog I specifically say uses AP style, I found one observation in particular that made me pause. Some readers pointed out my use of a dangling modifier. And I confess: You caught me.

I also confess: I don’t feel terribly bad about it.

Which lead me me down the rabbit hole of a whole ’nother debate: When does a grammar rule pass into obsolescence?

Grammar rules we should just forget about already

At what point is non-standard sentence construction widely accepted as standard? Can we as writers loosen up on certain rules when general usage renders an “incorrect” syntax perfectly understandable to the average reader?

Hold onto your outrage, Internet. Tell your grammar checker tool to buzz off.

Here are six grammar rules that are going out of style.

1. Never end a sentence with a preposition

Attempting to follow this rule can result in some painfully stilted sentences, like this gem attributed to Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.” (Sadly, this attribution is only anecdotal, but it’s still a gem.)

This rule stems from Latin, English’s ancient ancestor, in which sentence-ending prepositions simply can’t be done.

In modern English usage, however, there’s no reason to cling to this rule — unless you want your writing to sound more formal (or your characters to come across as pompous know-it-alls).

So the next time you wonder, can you start a sentence with a preposition? The answer should be, hell yes!

2. Never start a sentence with a conjunction

You know what kills me about this one? There’s no real basis for this rule except teacherly bias and a misplaced fear of sentence fragments.

According to David Crystal in The Story of English in 100 Words, teachers in the 19th century were annoyed with their students’ overuse of conjunctions as sentences starters. Rather than working to correct this tendency, they created a hard-and-fast rule against it — no doubt making their lives easier, but causing quite a headache for writers for centuries to come.

The truth is, there are different types of conjunctions. Subordinating conjunctions (like if, because and when) join a dependent clause with a standalone one. Break apart “If you build it, they will come,” and you have an independent clause that could be its own sentence (“They will come.”) and a fragment that doesn’t make sense by itself (“If you build it…”).

Coordinating conjunctions (like and, but and or) join two independent clauses together: “I was looking forward to the beach, but it rained all day.” Separate the clauses in these cases, and you still have standalone sentences, each with a noun and a verb: “I was looking forward to the beach. But it rained all day.”

While you don’t want all your sentences to be this abrupt, it’s OK to pepper some in for flavor.

grammar rules

3. Don’t use sentence fragments

Beginning a sentence with a conjunction will result in some sentence fragments.

As with any other “rule” on this list, this is a no-no for formal writing (i.e., articles in traditional publications, cover letters) but allowable for informal (i.e., blog posts, fiction).

One goal of informal writing is to sound more conversational, and like it or not, we use plenty of sentence fragments in everyday conversation. 

So. Add them in! Lean into it! Your writing will be more engaging because of it.

4. Never split infinitives

This one’s another holdover from Latin sentence construction. In Latin, an infinitive is a single word; it literally cannot be split. But English’s two-word infinitives can, so why shouldn’t they be?

Opponents argue the split infinitive is inelegant.

An infinitive is a two-word unit that expresses one thought, they hold, and splitting it up makes a sentence less readable.

But there are plenty of times when avoiding a split infinitive can lead to linguistic contortions that make a sentence clumsy or ambiguous. It can also change the impact. “To boldly go where no man has gone before” just doesn’t have the same ring as, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.”

Whether or not you split an infinitive is largely a matter of preference; it if makes a sentence smoother or more powerful, go for it.

Use as needed — without feeling bad about it.

5. Never use “who” when you should use “whom”

As Megan Garber argues in an Atlantic article titled “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” grammar rules are intended to clarify language to avoid confusion. And in many cases, “whom simply costs language users more than it benefits them.”

“Whom” has been falling out of practice for some time now. As a result, the majority of people don’t know how to use it, resulting in plenty of second-guessing, incorrect usage and less-than-smooth sentences. (Admit it, “Whom You Gonna Call?” hardly makes for a catchy song lyric.)

If you find yourself wrestling over “who” vs. “whom” in a sentence, your best bet is to rephrase the sentence to avoid the issue altogether. A reader may trip over, “With whom did you meet?”; a simple rewrite to, “Which person met with you?” solves the problem.

6. “They” is not a pronoun

Yes, using “he” as a default pronoun sounds sexist. But flipping between “he” and “she” in the same piece can be awkward, and using “he/she” brings the flow of a sentence to a grinding halt. Unless you want to use “it” as a gender-neutral pronoun — which seems insensitive, if not psychotic — that leaves you with “they.”

I get why this makes grammarians cringe. “They” is a plural noun, and we’ve twisted it into a faux singular noun in an attempt to be PC. It’s an imperfect solution, but until a widely recognized alternative comes along, we seem to be stuck.

What’s a writer to do?

Grammar, like language itself, is a constantly evolving creature.

Practices frowned upon in the past make their way into general acceptance as they become widely recognized. Contractions were once considered uncouth, but no one questions them now.

Just like spoken language, written language has dialects, and the adept user knows how to switch between them. An academic paper calls for a vastly different style than an article in a fashion mag.

The best rule of thumb when it comes to deciding whether to follow a seemingly antiquated grammar rule is to know your medium and audience.

Know the rules…so you can make an informed decision to ignore them.

That’s what being a pro is all about.

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Photo via  Charles-Edouard Cote/ Shutterstock 

The post 6 Old Grammar Rules That Are Finally Going Out of Style appeared first on The Write Life.

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Worldbuilding: How to Create a Believable World for Your Fiction Characters

When you hear the term “worldbuilding,” what comes to mind?

For some, it might be George Lucas’ classic Star Wars universe; for others, perhaps it’s the sprawling, gritty world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the not-so-distant future of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, or the richly detailed Middle-earth of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

An author creating his story’s world has the power to develop it in every way. What will the world look like? How different is it from our own? What new and interesting creatures will inhabit it? What will the people be like? What about the cities and landscape?

Considering these elements is crucial to creating an interesting, engaging and believable world — in any genre, not just fantasy or science fiction.

Before you write your next story, make sure to give your characters’ world the attention it deserves. Consider worldbuilding one of your first priorities.

Why do I need to build a world?

Simply put, your characters need a place to live, work and play! Every one of your favorite books, movies and TV shows involves building a world, even if it looks a lot like our own.

Would the story of the two young lovers from very different backgrounds have been as gripping if it hadn’t been set aboard the Titanic? Part of what makes a story work so well is the world where it takes place. We all knew the inevitable conclusion to Rose and Jack’s story, and this helped us connect with the tale and its characters.

In many ways, the world you build for your tale will be a character in itself: it will have its own look, feel, sound and smell.

It’s the favorite coffee house where your protagonist gets his coffee and morning gossip. It’s the mall where your hero buys her clothes. It’s the planet where the rare mineral is harvested. It’s the place you create to let your characters do what they’re in the story to do.

How does worldbuilding improve my story?

Just like every facet of each character might not make it into your story, the same is true for their world — but it’s still important for you to know and understand these details. The more intricately and intimately you know your story’s world, the richer your writing will be.

The coffee shop where your protagonist stops each morning becomes more interesting when the reader picks up on details of the décor or the fact that the barista is a former mafia hitman. Just because you don’t tell your reader that the dark-roast coffee beans are kept on the second shelf down, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know it.

Taking this level of care with your worldbuilding will carry into your writing and make your story more believable.

Bench in a purple park, text about creating a believable world

The secret to worldbuilding: consider all aspects

Go beyond just outlining the setting your characters live and work in. Think about the laws that govern the world, the way the government works, the world’s history, geography, technology and mythology. Create your world, and then push yourself to go deeper.

The Harry Potter books are a great example: J.K. Rowling created an entire magical world, set within our own, each with its own government and laws. She pulled elements from classic mythology, such as a phoenix and centaurs, and invented myths of her own, like the story of the Elder Wand. Her characters’ history matches up with our own in some ways, such as a magical war raging alongside World War II, but differs in others, with an entire book devoted to the history of Quidditch.

Crucially, muggle technology, like electricity, does not work properly in magical environments. Rowling’s decision affects her characters in many ways, the least of which is that all their school research requires dusty library books instead of Google.

Tips for creative worldbuilding

Struggling to create a world for your characters? Try some of these strategies for worldbuilding:

1. Read about other authors’ worlds.

The tiniest element of another writer’s creating could inspire your world. Take note of how the writer shows, rather than tells, elements of her world.

2. Watch and analyze movies.

Worldbuilding isn’t just for books. Try Tombstone, Blade Runner, Waterworld or How to Train Your Dragon.

What did the movie-makers do to make the world come alive? Pay attention to the details that add life and depth to the story.

3. Mix and match different worlds.

Take two ideas from different places, put them together and add your own twist to create a whole new world. This is especially helpful if you don’t know how to get started.

4. Draw a map of your story’s world.

It doesn’t have to be fancy; a quick sketch will do. Then add more detail to flesh it out and help you visualize what you’re creating.

5. Think about the history of the world.

What kinds of people live there? Are they like you and me? What makes them different?

6. Consider what kinds of flora and fauna live in your world.

Tame animals? Wild, unexplored forests or other landscapes?

7. Outline your world’s background.

What kind of technology does your world have? What is the government like — or is there one? What is the culture like? Do its inhabitants have fads and styles?

Remember that worldbuilding isn’t the whole story

It’s easy to lose yourself in creating a world and want to tell the readers everything about it.

Unfortunately, as fascinating as you find your world, the reader will quickly get to the point where they don’t care: they want the story.

Your world is not the central character of your story. While it may take centerstage at times, ask yourself whether each highlight helps move the story along.

Does it develop the characters in some way? Or is it something you want to add because you worked so hard to develop it? If it’s the latter — leave it out.

Learn more about worldbuilding with these resources

For more advice and examples of great worldbuilding, check out these books and blog posts:

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This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Photo via Vitalii Bashkatov/ Shutterstock 

The post Worldbuilding: How to Create a Believable World for Your Fiction Characters appeared first on The Write Life.