Grammar: what, why, how, and a bit of when
Updated: Apr 26
Ah, grammar. Everyone’s favourite topic to discuss when you reveal you’re a writer.
To some, it’s a confusing world of rules they don’t quite understand. To others, it’s a battlefield where the old guard are bravely standing against the uneducated masses looking to erode proper English. They’re both wrong.
Grammar isn’t something to be scared of.
And it isn’t something to preserve like a museum exhibit.
Grammar simply helps us understand each other. It gives us a common set of guidelines to follow so we’re all talking and writing the same language. And those guidelines adapt over time to make sure our language evolves along with us.
We often get asked what’s correct when it comes to a particular point of grammar or language. And the answer is nearly always "it depends". But of course, that’s not what you wanted to hear, so read on for an in-depth explanation of the bits of grammar we think you should follow, and which you should ignore.
The first rule of grammar: there are no rules.
The Golden Age Principle explains why some people really care about grammar and love to correct minor things they think others get wrong:
"At some time in the past, language was in a state of perfection. It is understood that in such a state, every sound was correct and beautiful, and every word and expression was proper, accurate, and appropriate. Furthermore, the decline from that state has been regular and persistent, so that every change represents a falling away from the golden age, rather than a return to it. Every new sound will be heard as ugly, and every new expression will be heard as improper, inaccurate, and inappropriate. Given this principle it is obvious that language change must be interpreted as nonconformity to established norms, and that people will reject changes in the structure of language when they become aware of them."
William Labov, Principles of Linguistic Change, Vol. 2: Social Factors (2001), p. 514
To those who think language has unbreakable rules, we say, which rules? How do you decide which rules to follow and which rules are out of date now? For example, you might think it’s correct to say "to whom it may concern" – but "whom" has been steadily disappearing from English and isn’t really necessary anymore.
You could impose some arbitrary cut-off point for when you want to stop language evolving, but what would it be? The 14th century?
"SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye, Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondeȝ and askez, Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wroȝt "
The 16th century?
"O, thou art fairer than the evening air clad in the beauty of a thousand stars; brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter when he appear'd to hapless Semele; more lovely than the monarch of the sky in wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms."
The 18th century?
"After this he pressed me earnestly, and in the most affectionate manner, not to play the young man, nor to precipitate myself into miseries which nature, and the station of life I was born in, seemed to have provided against; that I was under no necessity of seeking my bread; that he would do well for me, and endeavour to enter me fairly into the station of life which he had just been recommending to me..."
No thank you.
Language evolves. It always has, and it always will.
But we need rules, right? Even if they’re meant to be broken
Well, yes. But those rules aren’t absolute. As we explain in our workshops, there are three categories of grammar rules:
Necessary. In other words, rules that most people will follow when they’re writing or speaking. Generally, you'll only break them if you've got a good reason. Example: Order of adjectives. Most native English speakers don’t think about it, but there’s a set order you probably describe things in. That order is: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. You’d say "a smelly old red cotton sock", not "a cotton red old smelly sock".
Professional. This includes some rules that are showing signs of fading away but that are still common in many forms of writing. Example: Spelling out figures and per cent. In any sort of formal writing, numbers under 10 should be written in full. So should per cent. But in the social media age, that’s quickly becoming unnecessary. Many style guides are already switching to %, and digits 1-9 might not be far off.
Angry of Tunbridge Wells. These are the rules that only the real pedants will stick to out of a misguided sense of superiority. Example: Fewer vs less. In 1770, Robert Baker said "fewer" should be used with plural count nouns (like "there were fewer cars on the road during lockdown"). But it often sounds very stuffy. If you just stick with "less" you can’t go wrong, but you’ll always get those people in the supermarket who love to say "tsk, it should be 10 items or fewer".
Most grammar rules progress through these categories over time. At first, they're a necessary part of our language, then they become less common in everyday speech, and finally, only a few picky people will keep using them. If you can identify which category a rule belongs to, you can figure out whether it's appropriate in any particular context.
If rules are always changing, how do we know what's right?
What’s important to remember is that grammar rules exist to make your writing or speech clearer for other people. So, spelling out single-digit numbers is supposed to make sure the flow of your writing isn’t interrupted (seeing digits distracts your eyes – which is why so many headlines start like “7 things you wish you knew…”). On the other hand, writing bigger numbers as digits is necessary as you might end up writing out very long numbers otherwise.
If a grammar rule makes your writing clearer, use it. If it makes your writing sound odd or distracts from the point you’re trying to make, don’t use it!
If you're still not sure what to do, a quick search online will help. Look at sites like Grammar Girl or Grammarly and publications like The Economist style guide. As a lot of advice is just one person or organisation's approach, it's a good idea to look at a few sources so you can form your own idea.
Some rules to follow and some to avoid
You’d probably be disappointed in a post about grammar without getting some clear do’s and don’ts. So, with the by-now-obvious caveat that these all depend on the situation, here are some examples for you.
Rules you can follow
Capitalise the first letter of a sentence and proper nouns:
Without capital letters in the right place, writing would be much harder to understand. Don’t go over the top though – many business writers love unnecessarily capitalising everything, especially job titles. You wouldn't capitalise builder when you say "Dave is a builder". So why would you capitalise "Dave is a technical construction and materials engineer"?
For native English speakers, this is often (but not always!) intuitive. Subject-verb agreement helps make it clear in your writing who is doing what, so it’s important to get right.
How to use commas could be a whole book in itself. It’s a complicated subject to master. But commas make a huge difference in how someone reads and interprets your writing. Some of the most important times to use them include:
after each item in a list (the Oxford comma is optional but sometimes necessary after the penultimate item)
to separate out a thought from the main point of a sentence (“grammar rules, despite seeming very restrictive, only exist to make your writing clearer”)
after an introductory phrase (“When you’ve read this blog, you’ll know more about grammar”)
to join independent clauses (“grammar is stupid, but it’s also important”)
Rules you can avoid
Use whom as the object of a verb or preposition:
It should be "whom should I send this email to?" But that sounds ridiculous unless you're 94 and wear a bow tie. "Who" has become much more acceptable and it won't be long before "whom" disappears completely.
Don't use "they" as a singular pronoun:
It used to be acceptable to say "he" when talking about an unspecified or unknown person, for example:
"every grammar nerd has his own opinion on commas"
But today, we know that's dismissive of any grammar nerd who doesn't identify as male. So we use "they", despite it being a plural pronoun.
Use two spaces after a full stop:
It's unbelievable that this is still a thing. But we've come across this more than once. You only need to put two spaces at the end of the sentence if you're typing on a physical typewriter.
Rules that you think might exist but have never actually existed
Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction:
But why? You were only taught that in school so you didn’t write like this:
"I went to the shops. And we bought bread. And milk. And eggs. And I went home. And I ate eggs on toast. And I drank a glass of milk. And I went to bed."
Never end a sentence with a preposition:
Who knows where this came from. Some random rule from Latin apparently. But it’s perfectly fine to write a sentence like:
"Knowledgeable grammar experts are hard to come by."
Never split infinitives:
Victorians just decided they didn’t like the split infinitive (putting words in between "to" and the verb, like "to boldly go") and tried to ban it. But it was, and is, a common part of language, so it isn’t a mistake.
When will this blog post end?
We're getting there.
Why is this all so confusing?
Here's an analogy for you. Not that long ago, bankers in London were expected to wear top hats. Then it became suits. Then casual Fridays became a thing. Then the finance bro look came in. Then the pandemic happened and everyone was in pyjamas on their bottom half, a shirt on top if they were feeling formal.
Many companies have a dress code written down. And that dress code will have changed over time as people start pushing the boundaries and shifting what is normal and acceptable in that particular industry.
Grammar is exactly the same. The reason it's so confusing is that grammar rules are just a snapshot of a particular moment in time and a particular context. If you read an old book on grammar, the advice will be wrong. But if you try to write how a 16 year old texts their friends, then your grammar will sound awful to someone in a professional environment.
Our advice is: do what seems right to make your writing clearer to your readers.
As long as you follow the basic rules, like starting a sentence with a capital letter, your writing will be understandable. If you have a formal piece of content to create, like an annual report, hire a proofreader to make sure it's consistent and professional. And above all, don't pander to the angry of Tunbridge Wells who insist you never start a sentence with "and".