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Rules of English you can break—or are already breaking


You’ll need some time to read about of few of these rules in this article by Steven Pinker, a linguist who has written several books about language. (His first such book, “The Language Instinct,” is also a long—but humorous—read.)

Many of these so-called grammar rules,* says Pinker, “originated for screwball reasons.” Here’s a few of the issues he comments on:

  • Dangling modifiers – Watch out for them, though not all of them have to be fixed.
  • Like, as, such as – It’s about how formal you want to be.
  • Split infinitives – It’s OK to split them, and sometimes it’s better for adverb placement.
  • Who and whom – “Whom” is declining in use, but it’s a natural choice in some instances, and again, how formal do you want to be?
  • Very unique – This one is best to avoid, but with other constructions, says Pinker, “great writers have been modifying absolute adjectives for centuries.”

*These “grammar rules” have also been called zombie rules, but Pinker doesn’t use the term.


Beware of zombie rules

Some people still stick to rules like these:

  • A sentence can’t start with the conjunction “and,” “but” or “or.”
  • “Between” shouldn’t be used with more than two people or objects.
  • Don’t use “over” to mean “more than.” Use “over” only for the spatial.
  • Never use “while” to mean “although.”
  • “Who” refers only to people and “that” only to animals and objects.

But these are false rules, often still taught as absolute must-follows. Such rules are called zombie rules, I recently discovered. See this article from The Baltimore Sun for a list of other zombie rules.