6 Grammar “Rules” That Irk Me

June 27, 2023

White and red page that says "rules" in black. Photo by Egor Komarov on Pexels.com.
White and red page that says “rules” in black.

Hey, folks!

Remember the different grammar rules you were taught in grade school? Ones that maybe you scratched your head in confusion over, thinking “that sounds pointless!” when a teacher tried to drill them into you? But they ended up latching into your brain, anyway?

Some of you are already screaming at me. “You can’t start a sentence with ‘but!’”

But you can. And I did. AND I’ve broken the rule of never starting a sentence with “and.” Twice.

Wanna know why I’m ok with that?

A lot of those grammar rules are completely and totally arbitrary. Made for no reason other than someone thinking it sounded better, or more Latin and thus more “pure,” or what have you.

Now, in no way am I trying to tell you that if you like a certain “rule,” you can’t follow it. Go ahead if you want; but if I’m your copy editor, I might point out when it’s ok to break them. When it will actually help your work sound better. Because sometimes, it makes more sense to do what your teacher told you to avoid.

So, what rules (beyond the evident starting-a-sentence-with-a-conjunction rule) do I pull my hair out over when someone comes at me declaring I have bad grammar? (To be clear, this hasn’t happened yet, but I have no doubt that it will.)

1. You can’t end a sentence with a preposition

Sometimes, sentences ending with a preposition sounds a little weak. Other times, it can’t be avoided without the sentence falling apart. Even then, sometimes it just sounds better when the preposition ends the whole thing.

So you can end sentences with prepositions. There’s really nothing wrong with doing it.

2. Writing “an” before “historic”

This one might not be a rule all over the place, but I can’t make this list without addressing it.

Anyone who’s heard me talk about this knows this might very well be my absolute biggest pet peeve. If you feel strongly about this subject but in the opposite direction, you might want to skip this one.

Or don’t, and see where the opposition is coming from.

Seeing “an historic” makes my skin crawl. Technically speaking, that should be pronounced “an istoric.” No hard h sound. If your accent renders the pronunciation hard to say it without saying “an istoric,” that’s perfectly fine! Please use “an”! But in writing, I hold fast to this.

The point of the n in “an” is to make a smooth transition from “a” to the starting vowel of the next word. “A umpire” doesn’t work – it’s tricky for our mouths to work around. But “a dog” is easy, because there’s a hard sound for us to work with.

History, human, hockey, humid, etc. all have hard sounds – or are designed to, anyway – unlike, say, hour. Hour requires “an” because the h is silent, and we go straight to the “ou.”

It’s the same with harder u’s, like university, unit, etc. You never see “an university,” right?

So please, please I implore you, don’t write “an historic.” Please.

(Unless it’s the dominant way of writing in your field. I still shudder, but I acknowledge styles.)

(But maybe try and push back on it? Styles can change. I’m begging this one to change.)

3. There’s no such thing as a singular “they”

That’s absolute bullshit.

Just consult the centuries of people who used “their” as their pronoun. The centuries of texts that use “their” as a generic identifier (including writers like Shakespeare and Austen). There is a history of singular they in English, a long history.

I remember in university, before I was more attuned to grammar rules and the fact that they weren’t actually rules, I would write “their” instead of “he or she” in essays because a) lower word count and b) “their” is generic. (This was before I was also more attuned to pronouns outside of the false gender binary. But if I’d known that more then, it 100% would have been #1 on that list.)

My professor shot down the singular they and told me to change it because “he or she” was the right way to write it. I loved that professor. If he’s reading this (and remembers me?) it’s nothing personal. But I hope he’s changed his view. “Their” is simply more inclusive.

And if you want to write “themself,” please, do. I will not touch it. I might recommend it, even, given the structure and subject of the sentence. “Yourself” is a thing, after all.

4. Back to that starting-a-sentence-with-a-conjunction…

I stand by it. Not backtracking. But part of why it’s a rule is because too many sentences like it can start to sound weak. Sentences tend to sound punchier when they don’t start with a conjunction.

Still, sometimes it’s the best way to get your point across and maintain your style.

5. Avoid the passive voice

Correction: avoid overusing the passive voice. It, like the starting-a-sentence-with-a-conjunction situation, can make a paragraph sound weak if there are too many, but sometimes it’s the best thing to go with. If you catch yourself using passive a lot, play around with the sentences or lines and see what you can make active. Try for most. But don’t feel you have to change all of them.

6. Don’t split infinitives

An infinitive is “to + [verb].” So “to buy.” Splitting an infinitive means putting an adverb between to and the verb.

Why is this wrong? you ask.

That is a great question. There’s nothing wrong with it. Someone over a century ago made that rule up and people decided sure, why not.

You know the phrase “to boldly go?” You know, the Star Trek slogan? “To boldly go where no one has gone before”? The words that make my Trekkie heart sing?

Some people consider it grammatically incorrect, since “to” and “go” are split. But the meaning isn’t impacted with boldly in the middle; quite frankly, it sounds better than the alternatives.

If I was going to buy an expensive dress and knew it was a little hasty of me, I wouldn’t say “I’m going to buy hastily that dress.” Nor would I say “I’m going hastily to buy that dress.” No, I’d split the infinitive: “I’m going to hastily buy that dress.” It makes the “hastily” part stand out more when it’s right beside the action, puts more emphasis on the hastiness and how I shouldn’t do it, and maintains my meaning. The first non-split option forces readers to wait before they learn it’s hasty – much too late in a scenario like this. The second option actually, depending on the reading of it, changes the entire meaning of the sentence. Some readers might believe I’m running to buy the dress before I go do some other activity! But “hastily” and “buy” side by side in that order? Readers get the immediate impact and the true meaning of the situation.


There are some rules in grammar that need to be followed, or at least should be. Where to place certain punctuation, the order of sentence elements, subject-verb agreement, etc. Those are entrenched in the language and help readers follow what’s happening. But others that are more aesthetic than anything else aren’t necessarily 100% required. Like these six.

Copy editors can help you parse out what’s needed and what isn’t – it’s why we’re here! If you have a question about a grammar “rule,” feel free to drop it in the comments. And if you’re looking for a copy editor for your poetry or picture books, send me a message!

Published by Kaila Desjardins

Freelance editor, fiction writer, proud nerd.

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