7 Things Your English Teacher Lied to You About

We’re going to take a tiny hiatus from me haranguing you all about hyphens to talk about a few grammar rules you might still be clinging to from high-school days of yore. Rules that are so ingrained in your brain that you don’t even know they’re there. Rules that your English teacher grafted onto your very soul. Rules that, as a novelist, you can and should break.

I would first like to go on record as saying that high-school English teachers have one of the hardest jobs on the planet—and no, I’m not referring to them having to make William Faulkner even remotely understandable, though that is a thankless duty as well. No, I’m referring to the Sisyphean task of jamming inane and often nonsensical grammar rules down our throats while keeping us from knocking each other up and/or knocking each other’s teeth out.

So it is with grateful heart and the full knowledge that there but for the grace of Zeus go I that I bring up these seven trifles of standard educational dogma that no novelist should ever be slave to.

Misguidance #1: You can never start a sentence with a conjunction (i.e., “And” or “But”).

In the academic world, this may still hold true. I wouldn’t know as I am not in the academic world. But in the world of marketing, communication, business, training, and yes, fiction, you can and should start sentences with conjunctions.

Novels, as with other forms of modern media, need to flow well in the ear. That means starting a sentence with a conjunction or two. Don’t get carried away, though. Sentences should be of varied length and structure to keep the reader from tuning out in boredom. But definitely start a sentence or two with a conjunction. Don’t worry—you’ll get the hang of it.

Misguidance #2: You can never end a sentence with a preposition.

There’s a famous Churchill quote I like to trot out on the unsuspecting whenever the subject of ending a sentence in a preposition comes up. The story goes that an editor once told Winston Churchill that he couldn’t end a sentence in a preposition. His famous response was: “This is the sort of nonense up with which I will not put.”

And he has a point. Ending a sentence with a preposition is sometimes the only way that sounds natural. Bending over backward to “properly” reword the sentence so that the preposition is somewhere in the middle can leave a reader scratching her head wondering what the heck you’re talking about.

One fix for this if you really, really can’t stomach the idea of ending with a preposition is to rewrite the sentence entirely to omit the prepositional phrase. Believe me, this gets tiresome after a while. People don’t talk that way for a reason.

Besides, the rule of thumb for all fiction is that it should sound the way that people talk. Your characters may be Victorian nobility exploring the canals of Mars, and so the writing should reflect the way they would talk. But I’m pretty sure even Martian colonists from merry old England would agree that their time is better spent on conquest than on figuring out which word they should be ending a sentence with.

Misguidance #3: No fragments.

Every sentence must have a subject and a verb, right? Right? Wrong! Well, most sentences should have a subject and a verb. But occasionally, a nice sentence fragment or two throws in a little spice. Specifically, it says to the reader, pay attention to me!

Fragments can provide emphasis, or they can make prose sound more conversational. Fragments have a certain rhythm to them that may play well in the course of a paragraph. A narrator or other character’s use of fragments may give us clues to his or her nature.

Fragments used well can make a significant impact in a writer’s voice. They’re kind of like Napoleon—short, but they pack a hell of a punch.

Misguidance #4: Big words are always better.

Part of an English teacher’s job is to fill your head with impressive vocabulary words, million-dollar words, words that will get you a 1600 on your SATs. They wanted you to use big words, and the trick was to use them correctly. And you excelled at that. I mean, you’re a writer after all. You get words.

The same does not apply to novelling. It’s still important to have a good grasp on vocabulary, but now the trick is to use the exact right word for the job. The working-man’s word. It can be a big word, if the big word is the right word. But more often than not, a small, everyday word will do. In those cases, it’s wisest to stick with the small word.

The whole idea here is to make your prose like a breath of fresh air. You enjoy it when you inhale it, but for the most part, you don’t even notice it. If you start to notice the writing too much, then you’re missing out on the story. Keep it simple, smarty-pants. Simple and sleek.

Misguidance #5: There’s no such thing as too many adjectives/adverbs.

I had an art teacher once in elementary school who told me that if I could put my hand down on any part of my picture and not hit something, then I wasn’t done yet. I needed to fill my landscape to bursting with birds and trees and clouds and kites and flowers, etc.

Sometimes I felt my English teachers were saying the same thing to me. They wanted my essay/story to ooze out the sides with adjectives and adverbs. Describe, describe, describe! Paint me a picture! Don’t just tell me what happened—make me believe I’m really there!

Essentially, they were trying to teach us to show instead of tell. It’s a great lesson that every writer must learn. But there comes a point when enough is too much. You don’t need to describe every character from top to toe nail as soon as he or she enters a room.

You don’t need three adjectives for every noun and four adverbs for every verb. Your noun can be described occasionally with an adjective or two, or hell, even a metaphor or simile. But verbs should mostly stand on their own. If you’re constantly adding adverbs, then your verbs are either not strong enough or they’re not specific enough.

Misguidance #6: Never use contractions!

This, again, is a holdover from academic writing. Academic writing is a more formal sort of writing. Some business writing (such as policies and procedures) and training writing also still subscribe to the no-contractions rule.

Novelists should contract as often as people contract when they speak. I honestly would have thought this to be fairly obvious and not worth mentioning in this list, but I have run across several authors over the years who didn’t have a good grasp of when to contract. Not contracting can leave prose sounding stilted and awkward. Don’t let this happen to your writing! When in doubt, use a contraction, especially in dialogue.

Misguidance #7. It is never okay to split an infinitive.

To successfully split an infinitive, simply put a word in between the “to” and its verb, such as I did at the beginning of this sentence.This has been a point of some contention over the last century or so, but it seems that most modern English style guides have quietly swept this old rule under the rug. So from now on, feel free to boldly split infinitives at will.

On a side note not related to grammar but related to the subject of rules that no longer apply, English teachers the world over have ground it into our heads to put two spaces between typed sentences. This is no longer the case. One space is plenty in this age of pixel-perfect fonts. The two-spaces rule is a relic from typewriter days.

Are there any rules that were pounded into you that you’ve noticed no longer apply? What are they? Has it been hard to let go those old edicts, or are you embracing the anarchy with abandon?

Here are some other blog posts from people much smarter than me:

Ending a Sentence with a Preposition
Split Infinitive

Time to Unclutter Your Manuscript?

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, and her evil overlor--er, cat. TRUST ME, I'M LYING, a YA mystery, will be released by Delacorte in Fall 2014.
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31 Responses to 7 Things Your English Teacher Lied to You About

  1. I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your blog: you’re one of the few people I actually read down to the end and with pleasure!

    Of course, I come from French (my mother tongue) and the info I get from you is immensely useful! I never had an English teacher so I wasn’t taught these misguided rules in the first place. Though some of them exist in French too, like the dislike of fragmented sentences…I love them, and have to stop myself from using them all the time!

    “FROM using them?” Is that right? I’m not sure!As a foreigner, my biggest problem is with the correct use of prepositions. I’ve always wondered how natives managed, or do they? Perhaps that could be another post?

    • mesummer says:

      I would love to do a post on prepositions! Great suggestion! Your use of “from” in that instance was correct, by the way. :-) And I am humbled by your gracious praise. I will continue to endeavor to earn it.

  2. I, too, love your blog. It reminds me of how much I’ve forgotten, neglected, or simply never learned. And especially since I’m currently in the process of rewriting my WIP, I always feel newly inspired to slash-and-burn after reading your posts.

    One word on fragments. I love them. They feel very necessary in my writing, and oh how it galls me that spell check doesn’t feel the same. So annoying!

    • mesummer says:

      Haha! I totally agree with you about that annoying Word grammar check thingey. Boo. Ditch Word and come over to our Scrivener camp. (Although, you’ll still have to export to Word to send it to agents/publishers.)

      Fragments are totally awesome. So many things we were told were taboo turn out to be hard-working writing devices. Who knew?

  3. Bluestocking says:

    So true! When I first started writing fiction, there was a lot of academic qualities to my writing that I am still trying to purge…

  4. It’s amazing how much proper English and creative English differ. My writing has changed completely since the days when I only wrote for academic or technical purposes.

    I’m a huge sucker for sentence fragments in my writing. Love them! So much so that I have to make sure I’m not too choppy.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • mesummer says:

      I’m still in the throws of writing for technical purposes for my day job, so my writing style often feels like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Editing can sometimes be very amusing. It’s hard to turn off the “big words” for me. I often use the thesaurus to find the 25-cent version of the 25-dollar word I can’t get out of my head. Hazards of writing for someone else for a living.

  5. Nice blog. Apart from contractions.
    You see, I would have said never use contractions in narrative – apart from single person POV present. Then you can get away with ’em. Otherwise it’s speech, not narrative per se.
    Always use in speech, of course

    • mesummer says:

      I have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. Non-contractions stand out in speech, of course. But even using the “cannots” and such in the narrative bits between dialogue seems too stiff for me. Maybe it’s just a personal preference. Or maybe it depends on the genre or writing style. Or maybe it’s safe to say that avoiding all contractions in prose is simply not a hard and fast rule anymore–you can dispense with contractions if you prefer, but you can also use them if you want to.

  6. Heather says:

    I still use double spaces after a period. I am trying to change the habit but it’s nearly impossible, my fingers seem to ignore what I am telling them to do.

    • mesummer says:

      It took me forever to get my fingers to stop doing the automatic double-space thing. Honestly, I think what stopped me was having to do it correctly at work. If I hadn’t had to write in my day job, I’d still be trying to kick the habit!

  7. Jody Moller says:

    Great post! The good news is I am already breaking all these rules without even realising (then again high school English was my most hated subject!). I find it particularly frustrating when MS Word picks up ‘fragments’ in my writing – sometimes it seems that the whole page in underlined in squiggly green lines!

    • mesummer says:

      I agree about the squiggles. If I were actually writing in Word, I’d have to turn the blasted thing off. It would drive my inner editor nuts to see all those “error” marks all the time! Luckily, Scrivener quietly minds its own business and let’s me fragment all I want without complaint. :-) Of course, when I export to Word, I’ll have to deal with all again. Ah, Microsoft.

  8. Roe says:

    Enjoyed your post. But, F.Y.I.: SAT scores are out of 2400 now- not 1600.

  9. Donna Molles says:

    Numbers 4 and 5 were never pushed on me in school, but the others were. Somewhere along the line I figured out that these rules were not hard and fast. Probably from reading good writing that didn’t stick to the rules. But when it comes to the two spaces after a period, I just can’t give them up. I was trained all through school to type that way, and have done it for 40 years, so it’s automatic now. Besides, one space doesn’t look right to me. The only time I use one space (or even NO space) is when I’m conserving space where characters are limited. Loved all your commentary on these rules and agree with you one hundred percent!

    • mesummer says:

      I totally understand. I, too, couldn’t get behind the only-one-space thing for a looong time. It wasn’t till I was constantly having to do find/replace two spaces for one for my writing at work that I finally gave it up. It was weird at first–like trying to look around a room with someone else’s glasses on. But I guess I’m used to it now. Glad you liked the post! :-)

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  11. I had a creative writing teacher in sixth grade. And she’s a great person. She’s on my Facebook and I know her daughter. Truly, she rocks. BUT, I wrote a story once, and I was so ready for the, “Lori, you’re such a talented writer! I love this story so much I could scream with joy at your incredible gift!” What I got was, “Stories aren’t written in present tense.”

    Which confused me. If it was a story, shouldn’t it feel like it’s happening NOW? But, okay, I was never one to argue with the teacher. So, all my stories since I was 12 have been written in past tense.

    But, now, when I read the rare story written in present tense, it grates on me so that I can barely finish the story. It just pulls me out and I have to struggle to get back in. Don’t know if she ill-advised me, but she definitely made a point I have embraced to the point of barely being able to tolerate anything else.

    • mesummer says:

      Wow, I never heard that one before. Where did she get that idea? I read lots of stories in present tense, even as a kid, which would seem to indicate that it isn’t necessarily a recent trend. Anyway, isn’t it amazing the profound affect hearing something like that when you’re young has on the whole rest of your life?

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  13. conjensen says:

    I was an English teacher for years, and worked hard to teach good writing- generally by NOT teaching those rules! And (sic) I certainly don’t use them in my own writing!

    • mesummer says:

      Fantastic! So glad to hear that. It’s so hard to unlearn these things once we’ve learned them. :-) You rock for bucking the trend AND for being a teacher, by the way. There’s a special place in paradise for teachers. I imagine it filled with chocolate and adoring students waiting on you hand and foot.

  14. Mare F says:

    Well done. I remember so much more than I thought from all of those years with all of those English teacher. Thank you for this! LOL

  15. The problem lies with those of us who wear many hats.

    As a novelist, I agree, and do follow your advice above, and have done for some time (1985). As an academic writer, and editor of academic texts, I need to make sure clarity and correctness take over from ambiguity, abstruseness and language that simply does not make plain sense.
    The hard part is remembering. Context is everything, situation is everything, but old habits die hard. Thank goodness for great editors.
    Although I am an editor, I always get my own creative writing looked at.

    See? I can end with a preposition too – and the sky did not fall in.

    … Did it?

    • mesummer says:

      I totally agree. My day job is instructional designer, which means I write training and documentation for a living. Training writing is sort of a hybrid of narrative and business writing. If you read one of my training guides and then one of my stories, you wouldn’t guess they were written by the same person.

      I think the strangest thing about the way our educational system teaches writing (or at least the way it taught in my day) is that it forces you to compose assignments using academic writing while using fiction as its reading material. Talk about confusing.

      It must have worked, because we’re all still here clacking away at our keyboards. But the tradeoff, IMO, is a bit of a learning curve coming out of the gate as a fiction writer. You have to figure out which rules still to follow and which to break. Hence the post. :-)

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! And you’re right, the sky hasn’t fallen in… Yet…

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