Breaking the Rules: When Good Grammar Goes Bad

good grammar

Do you break the rules of good grammar?

Today’s post is an excerpt from 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. Enjoy!

“And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before—and thus was the Empire forged.”
— Douglas Adams

Everyone knows the old saying: rules were made to be broken. But some people love rules, live by them, and wouldn’t dream of breaking them. For these folks, good grammar means strict adherence to every rule, no matter how archaic or minute.

That’s too bad.

Don’t get me wrong. Rules are good. They keep us organized, consistent, and civilized. If there were no rules, we’d all be living in a perpetual state of anarchy.

Learning the Rules

In the world of language, rules help us understand each other. After all, language is merely a series of sounds that are organized according to a set of rules. Without rules, language would just be a bunch of noise.

The rules of grammar are designed to help us communicate clearly, both in our speech and in our writing. When proper grammar is absent, writing is sloppy, inconsistent, and difficult to read. To put it bluntly, we need grammar in order to make sense.

When a writer hasn’t bothered to learn the rules of grammar, it shows. The prose doesn’t flow smoothly or naturally, punctuation marks are strewn about haphazardly, and there’s no sense of clarity. Sentences are jumbled, words are misused, and paragraphs are disorganized. It’s a mess. The work is lazy and sloppy. Nobody wants to read it.

Failing to learn the rules of grammar leads to bad writing.

But some writers stubbornly refuse to bother with grammar, and they’re full of excuses: writing should be an art, the rules don’t make sense, and who made up these rules anyway? But these are all just excuses, poor rationale for avoiding the work that is involved in learning grammar and applying it.

Grammar is not easy to learn, let alone master. Writers, editors, and proofreaders must make a lifelong commitment to learning the rules and determining when the rules should be broken.

Breaking the Rules

Writers who are dedicated to their craft will invest the energy required to master their most basic tools, grammar being foremost among them. But there are situations in which it’s best to break the rules—as long as you know which ones you’re breaking and why.

There’s a difference between breaking the rules to make the writing more effective and breaking the rules because you don’t know what they are.

When we break the rules of grammar, one of two things happens. Either the writing improves or it suffers. Writers who break the rules because they don’t know them are more likely to produce shoddy work. But when writers take the time to truly learn the rules, breaking them becomes an option, a technique that a writer can employ to add flair, color, and meaning to the text.

Sometimes sticking to the rules doesn’t make sense. This is especially true when we’re writing dialogue. People don’t speak in a manner that translates easily into proper grammar. So if our dialogue is written according to the rules of grammar, it can sound unnatural.

Additionally, many grammar rules were established a long time ago. Language is constantly evolving. If a particular rule makes the writing sound old-fashioned or outdated, then discarding the rule is probably the best option.

Learn the rules as thoroughly as you can and then decide how to apply them on a case-by-case basis, depending on the audience and context.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Good Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation

grammar spelling and punctuation

Get the lowdown on grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Let’s get technical for a minute. What, exactly, is grammar?

According to Wikipedia:

In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules that govern the composition of sentences, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules….Linguists do not normally use the term to refer to orthographical rules, although usage books and style guides that call themselves grammars may also refer to spelling and punctuation.

Technically speaking, in linguistics and academia, spelling and punctuation are not components of grammar. When we discuss the mechanics of writing, we don’t refer to grammar. We refer to grammar, spelling, and punctuation because spelling and punctuation are separate components from grammar.




So how is grammar meaningful if words aren’t spelled properly and if punctuation isn’t applied correctly in a piece of writing? Aren’t spelling and punctuation critical to the structure of written language?

Grammar and Orthography

There are two common ways that language manifests: it is either spoken or written. Grammar deals with how we structure the language, and it is applied to both speech and writing. Orthography, on the other hand, addresses the rules of a language’s writing system or script.

Orthography deals with spelling and punctuation, because these elements are only relevant when the language is written.

After all, when you say a sentence aloud, you don’t say period, question mark, or exclamation point at the end. However, if you’re reading the sentence aloud, you need these punctuation marks to help you navigate the text, and they also provide cues that inform the way we stress words or inflect the reading.

Proper Grammar and Popular Grammar

I’m not a linguist. I’m a writer. I’m interested in linguistics and etymology, but only to the extent that these fields of study inform my writing and can help me better understand how to use the tools of my craft.

Grammar addresses how we structure our language and includes concepts such as tense agreement, modifiers, sentence diagramming, word order in a sentence, and sentence order in a paragraph.

But when we’re dealing with written language, proper spelling is just as essential as tense agreement. It would be quite difficult to get through a written text that was not punctuated or if the majority of the words were spelled incorrectly.

Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation

Oddly, I’ve found that spelling and punctuation are misused far more than structural (or grammatical) elements in writing. Most people know how to put their words in order, and a writer of average skill is usually good at verb and tense agreements and other aspects of writing that would be construed as grammatical in nature.

Yet plenty of folks struggle with orthography (punctuation and spelling) even if their grammar is in good order. This makes sense, because we are primarily exposed to spelling and punctuation through reading and writing. But the structure of our language comes to us through listening and speaking as well.

In other words, we writers are probably far more immersed in grammar than we are in orthography.

Putting it All Together

Technically speaking, grammar may not include spelling and punctuation, but we need all these elements in our writing. We talk about grammar, spelling, and punctuation because these are separate but related elements that work together to produce a mechanically coherent piece of writing.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Five Grammar Habits Every Writer Should Adopt

good grammar

Do you have good grammar habits?

Can you imagine a nutritionist who eats exclusively at fast food restaurants? A personal trainer who never exercises? A writer who can’t be bothered with grammar, spelling, and punctuation?

In most professions, best practices and tools of the trade are mandatory. If you want to be a doctor, you have to have a PhD. If you want to land a job in accounting, you need math skills. But writers can easily finagle around best writing practices, especially with the increasing accessibility of self-publishing.

Basic grammar skills used to be mandatory–not just for writers but for all high school graduates. These days, you can get out of college with a degree but no clue how to properly structure a sentence or differentiate between they’re, their, and there.

I’ve lamented about the fact that grammar is absent from education. But I’m even more saddened by the absence of good grammar among self-proclaimed writers.

Good Grammar Habits for Writers




I’m not going to rehash all the reasons writers should practice good grammar. It all boils down to being a professional and showing respect for the craft of writing and for your readers.

Learning grammar–mastering grammar–requires making a long-term commitment. You don’t have to spend hours every day poring over grammar guides and dissecting sentences, but you do need to develop a few basic grammar-related writing habits.

These are the habits that I’ve adopted in my own writing practices. Through experimentation, trial and error, and sheer willpower, I’ve managed to turn these practices into ingrained habits.

1. Know What You Don’t Know
Nothing chaps my hide like a self-proclaimed author/writer/editor/proofreader who doesn’t understand the basics of grammar. I frequently come across blogs (and comments) that promise writing tips or expertise but offer more in the way of promoting mistakes. I suspect these writers don’t realize they’re getting it wrong (and spreading bad grammar like a disease). Take a step back and figure out what you do and don’t know. And before you offer advice, make sure you know what you’re talking about.
2. Collect Resources and Build Your Arsenal
Got a friend who is a grammar geek? Is the Chicago Manual of Style still sitting on your wish list? Do you have a bookmarks folder packed with reputable grammar websites? Round up your resources so when questions arise, you can quickly and easily get (correct) answers. 
3. Look it Up
When you’re writing and come across a grammar question, take a few minutes to go in search of the answer. Don’t write around it or put it off for some future writing project. Stop and look it up right now. And remember that every time you look something up, you just increased your worth and skill as a writer. 
4. Read Well and with a Sharp Eye
If you read nothing but blogs and social media posts, you’re not reading well. Make time in your reading schedule to read books that you know are well written–books that have gone through the tried-and-true editing and proofreading processes. Also, read with an eye for grammar. Be on the lookout for questionable sentence structures, typos, and other errors. 
5. Polish Your Work
Most writers with works that demonstrate bad grammar actually know the rules but haven’t properly edited and proofread their work. All the learning and resources in the world won’t matter if you don’t double check every writing project and fix all those pesky typos and grammar mistakes that you made as you rushed through the first draft.

This is by no means an exhaustive list since it’s based solely on my own experiences, so if you have any good grammar tips or best practices to add, please share by leaving a comment. Keep practicing those good grammar habits, and keep writing!

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

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