In almost every writing skills seminar, there comes a moment in which a participant
finds that one of the notions about writing that he or she has held since elementary
school is either no longer valid or is dead wrong. In an attempt to standardize
communication in English, many teachers and scholars codify their opinion as
"rules." These rules are really guidelines that must occasionally yield to provide
flexibility to our efforts to express ourselves.
Although we cannot communicate without at least some understanding of the
rules, we also need to be flexible about their application. It's important to
leave room for creativity while maintaining the goal of clear communication.
Below are seven "rules" that claims people must break occasionally to give
their communications the suppleness and effectiveness they demand.
1. "Never end a sentence on a preposition."
When criticized for occasionally ending a sentence on a preposition, Winston
Churchill replied, "This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will
not put." Churchill's reply satirizes the strict adherence to this rule. No
one is urging you to write, "Where is Johnny at?" or "Where are you going to?"
The best, most effective communication sounds and feels natural, and if that
means writing, "Here is the file the list belongs with" instead of "Here is
the file with which the list belongs," then write it that way.
2. "Never use 'I' in business writing."
Although the use of "I" is forbidden in formal research reports and in technical
journals, if you are writing about your own thoughts, actions, or opinions ("I
believe …" or "I've enclosed …") in a business letter and aren't speaking for
your company or department as a whole, "I" is acceptable.
3. "Never start a sentence with a conjunction."
Admittedly, starting a sentence with a conjunction can leave the reader confused
with what preceded the "and," "or," "but," or "yet." It automatically creates
a sentence fragment, because, if you lift the sentence off the page, it makes
no sense at all. But sometimes starting with a conjunction can add vividness,
power, and flow to thought. That's why there are so many conjunction-opening
sentences in advertisements, direct mail, newspapers, speeches, and e-mails.
They mirror the way we actually speak.
4. "Never write a one-sentence paragraph."
Our teachers may have defined a paragraph as "a cluster of like ideas," but
sometimes a sentence stands alone. There may be only a single thought you have
to express on a subject. Also, you may be striving for the dramatic effect of
an occasional one-sentence paragraph. A one-sentence paragraph can be a reader-friendly
way of forming a bridge between two lengthy paragraphs.
5. "Don't use contractions in writing."
We use contractions when we speak. It's a normal and natural way to express
oneself. Those who oppose the use of contractions in written communications
view them as too informal, like wearing a suit without a tie at a business meeting.
However, avoiding contractions can make a sentence sound stiff, as in "We did
not see the truck that hit us." Relax. Loosen up. No one ever lost a client
by sounding friendly and at ease.
6. "Never split an infinitive."
This used to be the mantra of every high school English teacher. We went
into all sorts of verbal contortions always to obey that rule. Now, it's the
lace hanky of composition—nice, but not always needed or even appropriate. Which
of these sounds better, is more forceful, and is not ambiguous: "We intend actively
to pursue improvements" or "We intend to actively pursue improvements"? The
new rule should be to avoid splitting infinitives whenever possible, but not
if it reduces the effectiveness of the sentence or creates ambiguity.
7. "Avoid personification."
Color this one insignificant. While it's true that the person who composes
a book, article, or letter may speak to your very soul, but the publication
itself just lies there mute, if you write, "The memo says …" you will not be
rendered sterile. Forget about it.