Writing in English can be tough, even if you’re a native speaker. You have to think about the content of what you’re writing, sure, but you also have to consider who your audience is, what level and type of language to use, what the purpose of your writing is, and that’s before you even get into the technical aspects of spelling and grammar.
As a native English speaker and teacher, I can only apologise for the mess of grammar rules that English gives you to work through. More than some languages, English has a complex and often confusing set of grammar rules to work through.
But what about myths?
A myth here means a widely held belief that simply isn’t true in reality. English writing has its own set of myths that seem to have developed out of nowhere, but which everyone believes.
Here are the 5 English writing myths that annoy me the most:
Thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition.
Prepositions include words like at, there, with, above, down, up, after, since, etc. While there are certain words such as at that are generally not a good idea to keep at the end of a sentence, this isn’t a strict rule. In many cases it is perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition, for example:
I’m going to go to school this afternoon and then go home and get changed after.
This sentence is perfectly easy and simple to understand, right? Now how can we change it so that the preposition after isn’t at the end of the sentence? Let’s see.
I’m going to go to school this afternoon, after which I will go home and get changed.
This is grammatically correct, but the after which sounds oddly formal, especially if I were talking to a friend.
Having to pay so much attention to not end a sentence with a preposition is confusing, makes writing more difficult and just isn’t worth the trouble.
As Winston Churchill supposedly once said when this rule was pointed out to him, “That is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.”
Thou shalt not start a sentence with but, however, and, so, because.
In academic or business writing, I can see why this is good advice. Words like these are generally informal (with the possible exception of however), and if you’re writing in a style that requires precision and needs to sound smart, it might be best to avoid these types of words and open your sentences differently.
But this should only be taken as advice, not a rule. In general use there’s no problem with starting sentences this way.
So there’s no reason why you can’t start a sentence with any of these words.
However, you should be careful not to overuse them in your writing, especially if you’re writing long-form content like an article, essay, or report.
Because if you do, it might start to sound weird.
And not particularly creative.
So, there’s no rule stopping you from using them, but don’t go crazy and start every sentence this way.
Because you’re better than that. (OK, I’ll stop now.)
Thou shalt not split an infinitive verb.
Probably the most famous example of breaking this so-called “rule” comes from the classic TV series Star Trek: To boldly go where no man has gone before. (I love that show).
According to certain language purists over 100 years ago, this was unacceptable use of English. They would have said that the correct way is To go boldly. But that just doesn’t sound as good, does it?
Fortunately for Gene Roddenberry, linguists and grammar experts generally agree nowadays that there is nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive. So, it’s fine to quickly speak, to secretly desire something, and indeed to boldly go!
Thou shalt not use the same word twice in a paragraph.
I agree with the idea behind this “rule”. Repetition doesn’t look great most of the time, and for the reader to have to see the same word over and over makes the writing appear flat, boring and uncreative. Note that words like “and”, “or,” “to,” and many other linking words are excused from this rule- try only using the word “and” once in a paragraph and see how hard it is!
So of the 5 myths here, this one has the most truth in it. Repeating words too often is bad. However, I’ve seen fellow writers and students spend half an hour or more looking for alternative words that simply don’t exist- or if they do exist, putting them in those paragraphs seems nonsensical. Just look at this paragraph and the one before it. I’ve repeated the word “paragraph” four times already, which according to this rule makes it bad writing.
But what’s a better word than paragraph in this situation? Section? Subdivision? Passage?
Those are all theoretically fine, but they don’t have the same clear meaning. Substituting those words in would make this whole section more difficult to read. In situations like this, repeating the word paragraph is totally fine.
As a general rule, I suggest this: use a variety of words if you can, but if that’s not possible then don’t worry about it. Repetition is not always bad. Don’t go scurrying to the thesaurus in panic every time you see the same word twice in a paragraph.
Thou shalt not use short sentences.
Academic English is the worst offender for this rule. Somehow we all got the idea that short sentences are bad and long sentences are good. A nice long sentence contains a lot of information beautifully realised in an intricate display of virtuoso verbosity and a cadence unrivalled by those paltry diminutive counterparts; moreover, the opportunity to include further clauses to back up the original claim presents itself, and basically they just look more impressive.
Now there are two main problems with using long sentences all the time. First, they’re harder to understand. In some academic circles it seems to be some kind of competition to see who can make their work the most difficult to follow for the layman, which is frankly stupid. Being hard to understand does not make you or your writing more intelligent, and in many cases it takes more brain power to take a complicated subject and explain it in a simple way.
The second problem? Long sentences can be boring. I love reading, but when I come across a sentence that’s the length of an entire paragraph I can’t help but roll my eyes. It’s just not necessary.
This is not to say that you should never use long sentences. Mix it up. Use a combination of short, punchy lines that grab attention and longer, more complex sentences when they are necessary.
As George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984, said: “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” The same applies to every aspect of writing.