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, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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31 Responses to 7 Things Your English Teacher Lied to You About

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