The writing rules you can ignore – and why you should always think twice about ignoring them

in Back to basics

Every copywriter reading this will have been told at some point in their career not to start a sentence with ‘and’. And for every copywriter reading this there’ll be someone else who’s thinking: ‘Quite right. You should never start a sentence with ‘and’.’

So who is right? Well, I think they both are. I think it’s just one example of many rules that are up for debate – but perhaps not for the reasons you might think.

Let’s take four supposed rules we have all come across. I’ll explain why they’re wrong. I’ll then explain why I think you should sometimes follow them anyway, especially if you’re writing copy.

Never start a sentence with ‘and’ (or ‘but’ or ‘because’ or ‘however’)

This is perhaps the big one. It’s an incredibly strongly held belief for many people. The trouble is it’s just that – a belief. In fact, we’ve been starting sentences with ‘and’ for hundreds of years:

And did those feet in ancient times

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

No one seems to know where this rule came from but journalist Lane Greene has an interesting theory. Is it from our primary school days when we’d write: ‘We went to the shops and then we came home and then we had lunch’? We were told not to write sentences with so many ands, but also that a suitable alternative was not: ‘We went to the shops. And then we came home. And then we had lunch.’

Never split an infinitive

This is another big one.

The infinitive is the verb root – ‘to go’, ‘to have’, ‘to love’. The rule is that you can’t say ‘to boldly go’, ‘to hardly have’, ‘to truly love’. Yet we do say things like this all the time.

This is a rule that crept in during the nineteenth century when we were in thrall to Latin. In Latin – as in French today, for example – the infinitive is a single word. ‘Aller’, ‘avoir’, ‘adorer’. You can’t split these, goes the theory, so you shouldn’t split it in English either. Yet given it is possible in English, why shouldn’t we split it? Indeed, sometimes it can’t be avoided. As experimental psychologist Stephen Pinker points out, sentences such as:

Profits are expected to more than double this year

sound like gibberish when you unsplit the infinitive:

Profits are expected more than to double this year

Never end a sentence with a preposition

A preposition is a word that tells you where or when something is in relation to something else. It’s words such as ‘at’, ‘in’, ‘off’, ‘with’ or ‘by’.

The rule probably became enshrined in grammar law in Robert Louth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar, which was published in the eighteenth century.

The trouble is, we end sentences with prepositions all the time:

What is the world coming to?

Where are we going to?

It’s something we have to put up with

We do it because it sounds clumsy not to:

To what is the world coming?

To where are we going?

Up with it we will have to put

Avoid the passive voice

The passive voice is the verb ‘to be’ followed by a past participle.

Mistakes were made

Acme Enterprises was founded in 1902 by George Acme

Your requirements will be taken very seriously by us

The argument to avoid it stems from the fact that the passive voice is very, well, passive and lack-lustre. Using the active voice, is much more energising and powerful:

I made a mistake

George Acme founded Acme Enterprises in 1902

We will take your requirements very seriously

Why you should sometimes follow these rules

These rules are very hotly contested. One letter in the Guardian recently bemoaning the use of a split infinitive in an article was roundly rebuffed a few days later by numerous others.

As copywriters we can be very smug and sniffy about being ‘in the right’, despairing of the ignorance of lesser mortals who believe these ‘rules’ and pull us up on them.

I think it’s wrong to think like this, though. I think there are four very good reasons to sometimes follow the rules, even though they’re technically wrong.

Because your reader believes them

If I had to give any piece of advice to an aspiring copywriter it would be: write for your reader. Everything flows from that.

If you think your reader might think you shouldn’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or split the infinitive (and has firm opinions on them rather than not being able to care less), you shouldn’t.

My job as a copywriter is to engage, persuade and interest my reader. It isn’t to smugly hold the grammar moral high ground. By using constructions they won’t be comfortable with that’s exactly what I’d be doing. Because even though they might be wrong, they think they’re right. So your perceived mistake will:

  • distract them from your copy and its message because they think you made a mistake
  • lessen their opinion of your business because they think you don’t understand grammar

Which means that, ultimately, your copy will be less successful at doing its job – selling your company’s products or services.

Because your client believes them

Sometimes, you’ll be working with a client who thinks some or all of these rules are right. I have one client, for example, who thought you shouldn’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’. He was quite happy to be corrected the first (and only) time I did it when writing copy for him – but he still doesn’t like to do it. If he were writing the copy, he wouldn’t start a sentence with and. Therefore, because I’m writing as him, I shouldn’t either. To do otherwise wouldn’t authentically sound like him.

Because the context demands it

Sometimes, the context demands that you follow these rules. In very formal writing, starting a sentence with ‘and’, splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition does strike the wrong note by adding a degree of informality that’s out of place. Equally, sometimes you do want to distance yourself from the mistake by saying ‘mistakes were made’.

Because it doesn’t really matter

The thing about rules like these is that some people really notice them when they’re broken. But the people who know these rules aren’t really rules, don’t think twice about writing that observes them anyway.

For example, this passage might enrage some people:

Our sick cat was taken to the vet by my partner Chris for another consultation. And the vet said to definitely continue with the medication. The fact the cat hated it was simply something we would have to put up with.

Yet we can rewrite it in a way that won’t offend anyone. What’s more, we won’t really cause anyone to worry that it could or should have been written differently:

My partner Chris took our sick cat to the vet for another consultation. The vet said she was in no doubt that we should continue with the medication. The fact the cat hated it was neither here nor there.

So why not take the path of least resistance?

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