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7 Times You Should Break Grammar Rules

Updated on March 31, 2023Grammar

As Pablo Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Just as visual art is guided by rules of composition and color theory, writing is guided by grammar. And although sticking to grammar rules usually improves your writing, there are certain circumstances where breaking those rules can make your writing even better.

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7 times to break grammar rules

Usually, it’s important to adhere to grammatical rules in your writing. Grammar organizes and directs our writing. It makes words’ and sentences’ meanings clearer and guides readers through text.

In academic and professional writing, correct grammar should be a priority. But in other kinds of writing, sometimes it’s actually better to break—or bend—grammar rules.

Here’s why: No matter what you’re writing, clarity should always be a priority. Sometimes, this means it’s best to disregard an established grammar rule, like by splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition, to ensure that your reader easily understands your message. In other cases, like with dialogue, free verse poetry, and direct response copy, sticking to grammar rules can make it harder for readers to connect with your work. Characters who speak like real people feel more vivid to readers, punchy copy grabs readers’ attention in ways more formal language can’t, and free verse poetry typically uses language in creative and innovative ways.

Beyond these, we also run into grammar ambiguity related to language’s evolution. As words take on new meanings and new sentence constructions become commonplace, “the rules” often take some time to catch up. In cases like this, it’s often best to write according to the current accepted standard rather than try to make your writing fit a set of rules that were developed for a different era.

Ultimately, it’s a writer’s call when to break grammar rules. It’s easier to know when to break grammatical rules and how to do it effectively when you’re well-versed in those rules. Similarly, it’s more accepted, and even expected, in certain kinds of writing. Here, we’ll look at seven different instances where breaking the rules is OK.

1 Free verse poetry

Free verse poetry is poetry that, as its name implies, isn’t bound to a specific verse format, structure, or rhyme scheme. In a free verse poem, the rhythm comes from natural pauses within and between words rather than the constraints imposed by a format like haiku or a rhyme scheme like iambic pentameter. Every free verse poem is unique, but all share one characteristic: no consistent meter or rhyme scheme.

With free verse poetry, it’s not just acceptable to break the rules—it’s a rule in itself. A free verse poem can be about anything, be any length, and can evoke any kind of mood. But it can’t have a consistent meter or rhyme. Here is an example of a free verse poem:

She calls me tofu

because I am so soft,

easily falling apart.

I wish I were tough

and full of fire, like ginger—

like her.

—“Sisters,” by Janet Wong

2 Dialogue

Most of the time, we don’t use perfect grammar when we speak. When you’re writing dialogue, the goal is for your characters to sound like real people—and to do that, their dialogue might need to break grammatical rules.

Dialogue is the text that shows what a character is saying. Here are a few examples:

  • “How do you like them aces?” Jillian asked.
  • “Stop calling me,” they said. “Or else.”

When you’re writing dialogue, breaking grammatical rules can do more than make characters sound like real people. It can give their words a dramatic effect and give each character a unique voice. You might have one character frequently use run-on sentences, while another speaks in short bursts. Dialogue doesn’t even have to be full sentences—just like real people, characters often communicate in short phrases and single words.

3 Direct response and email copy

You probably read direct response and email copy just about every day. The copy in ads and on websites that tells you to act now, click here to learn more, and subscribe today to learn the secrets to success that will make your life infinitely better is known as direct response copy. This is because it’s written to elicit an instant response from you. In direct response copy, it’s perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with but or and. Here’s an example:

You might think last month’s sale was our biggest sale of the year. But you’d be wrong.

Not all email copy is direct response copy. Emails between individuals are typically conversational and often use a similar tone to friendly letters, text messages, and even spoken conversation, depending on whom the email is for and what it’s about. In a lot of cases, emails from companies and organizations also use this kind of tone in an effort to build familiarity and trust with their readers. That often means breaking grammatical rules. One “rule” (though it’s not an actual grammar rule but more of a guideline) you’ll often see broken in emails is the one against single-sentence paragraphs.

For example:

Hey there!

We’ve got some awesome new keyboards and monitors in stock—scroll down to check ’em out.”

It’s not grammatically correct, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s catchy and grabs your attention.

4 End a sentence with a preposition

Actually, it’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition—at least some of the time.

A preposition is a word that communicates the relationship between other words in a sentence. For example:

  • We sat in the classroom.
  • They arrived at dusk.

When we speak, we frequently end sentences with prepositions. Here are a few examples:

  • Meet the guy I was telling you about.
  • Whom did you go with?
  • I can’t find my glasses; can you remind me which table I left them on?

Writers are often told not to end sentences with prepositions because, in a lot of cases, it leaves the sentence incomplete or unclear. Here’s an example of a sentence that shouldn’t end with a preposition:

  • What time are you leaving at?

A clearer version of this sentence would be, “What time are you leaving?”

In formal writing, it’s best to avoid ending sentences with prepositions because doing so gives your writing a conversational tone. This is also what makes it feel so authentic when you’re writing dialogue or personal messages.

5 Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns are short words used to refer to a person or thing that’s already been mentioned. Personal pronouns include:

  • he
  • I
  • it
  • she
  • they
  • us
  • we
  • you

Pronouns, like other words, evolve over time. For example, the pronoun you was used only as a plural pronoun until the seventeenth century—its singular form was thou. Today, they/them/theirs has become widely accepted as a singular pronoun, as more people embrace personal pronouns beyond she/her/hers and he/him/his. Other gender pronouns like zie/zir and xem/xir have gained popularity as well.

Using the singular they or neopronouns isn’t really breaking grammatical rules in the same way that using a sentence fragment or purposefully incorrect grammar in dialogue would be. This is because the verbs you use with them still conjugate the way they would with any other pronoun.

If you’re not sure how to conjugate a verb after a pronoun, use the form that fits the number of people you’re referring to. For example:

  • Blaine is a dedicated martial artist. Zie trains four nights per week.
  • Lou annotated the entire report all by emself.

Read more: A table on gender-neutral and inclusive pronouns

6 Sentence fragments

A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence. It could be missing a subject or a predicate.

It’s completely fine to use sentence fragments in dialogue, casual messaging, direct response copy, song lyrics, or poetry for the same reason it’s fine to break other grammatical rules in these kinds of writing: Sentence fragments mimic speech.

There are lots of ways to use sentence fragments in your writing. In poetry and song, sentence fragments can create anaphora. In direct response copy, they can hook readers’ attention and keep them engaged:

Does our newest system run more quietly than our last one? Yep.

Will it save you a ton of time? For sure.

Do you need to take out a second mortgage to afford it? Nope.

Here are a few more examples of sentence fragments in writing:

  • I asked where my sister had gone. “Up the hill,” my nephew answered, pointing to the ridgeline.
  • Missed class yesterday. Got the notes?

7 Splitting infinitives

You’ve probably been told that you should never split infinitives in your writing. An infinitive is the base version of a verb that’s used as a noun, adverb, or adjective. Full infinitives are formed by adding the word to to the verb, while bare infinitives remain singular. Here is an example of each in a sentence:

  • I want to discuss next semester’s course offerings.
  • I heard the rooster crow this morning.

When you split an infinitive, you insert an adverb between to and the base verb within a full infinitive. Here is an example:

  • I want to quickly discuss next semester’s course offerings.

Despite technically being grammatically incorrect, it’s easy to understand this sentence. That’s why it’s perfectly fine to split infinitives in many cases. In fact, you might even encounter a scenario where splitting the infinitive makes a sentence clearer. But in a scenario where splitting the infinitive would potentially make the sentence confusing, restructure the sentence so your infinitive stays intact. Here’s an example of this kind of scenario:

  • This app helps you to quickly, easily, and conveniently work.

This sentence might not be completely confusing, but look at how much clearer it is with the infinitive intact:

  • This app helps you to work quickly, easily, and conveniently.

Clarity is the goal

When you break grammatical rules, it should be in the service of making your words, sentences, or prose clearer, more accurate, or more engaging. But remember, knowing the rules and why they exist can help you understand how, when, and when not to break them.

Just as visual art is guided by rules of composition and color theory, writing is guided by grammar. And although sticking to grammar rules usually improves your writing, there are certain circumstances where breaking those rules can make your writing even better.

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