It’s a dark and stormy night. You walk alone, the streetlights dim, as rain pelts your face. Just two more blocks until home. As you round a corner, a flash of lightning reveals the horrifying reality—you’re within chewing distance of a big mistake. A half-rotted book of grammar rules bares its sharp teeth, its dead, white fingers reaching for you as images of bloody split infinitives spill from its yellowed pages.
“No!” you scream. But it’s too late. The first bite seals your fate. You’re one of them now, forever doomed “to boldly go”—just like on Star Trek. But maybe, just maybe, that’s not such a bad thing.
. . . What Just Happened?
For years, English teachers have taught their students to never split an infinitive, to never end a sentence with a preposition, and to never use passive voice. There are more, certainly, but to me, these three are the biggest “zombie grammar rules”—they’re outdated, misunderstood, or were never rules in the first place, but somehow, they’re still shambling around despite their undead state.
Here’s a quick reality check:
- Split infinitives. According to Grammar Girl, Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury, wrote in 1864 that he saw “no good reason” to split infinitives because the practice was “entirely unknown to English speakers and writers.” He wasn’t correct, per the Oxford English Dictionary, yet the idea stuck. Nowadays, as the legendary Strunk and White wrote in The Elements of Style, “Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does. ‘I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.’ The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear, the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible.” Hear, hear, good sirs. As long as the split infinitive makes sense and sounds nice, you can feel safe putting this zombie to rest.
- Sentence-ending prepositions. This one stems from a respectable goal—seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers tried to make English grammar rules conform to Latin—but it’s not the hard-and-fast, black-and-white rule some people think it is. It’s true, yes, that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition if the sentence works without it; the best example here is “Where are you at?” Because you can just ask “Where are you?” and leave the “at” out of it, you should. But this is less about the preposition and more about a sound grammar best practice: eliminate extraneous words. Most of the time, when you try to shoehorn a preposition into its “supposed ‘correct’ position,” according to the Oxford University Press, “you find yourself with very stilted or even impossible sentences.” Nobody wants that. So, when it comes to this particular zombie, there’s nothing to be frightened of. (See what I did there? “There’s nothing of which to be frightened” makes me want to run in terror.)
- Passive voice. Skyword Associate Editor Matt Cote covered passive voice for the Content Standard, and it’s true that active language is preferable to its less dynamic counterpart. In case you need a refresher, passive voice is a grammatical construction wherein the noun being acted upon (the object) is treated as the noun doing the acting (the subject), such as in “Our brains were devoured by the flesh-hungry undead.” To make this sentence active, simply swap things around so it reads, “The flesh-hungry undead devoured our brains.” Passive voice is not always wrong, but because it implies weak and evasive writing, use it only in specific situations, such as when you want to emphasize the object instead of the subject, or when the subject is unknown or unimportant. So, for instance, “The building was set on fire recently” is fine because (a) the person who set the fire is not known, and (b) the fact that the building was set on fire is the whole point of the story. Matt offers a good way to spot passive voice in your own writing: “Always keep a sharp eye out for conjugations of the verb ‘to be,’ such as am, was, were, are, etc.” Another big offender is “by,” as shown in the flesh-hungry undead example above.
Got it? Good. Now that you’re armed with knowledge and ready to survive a zombie-grammar apocalypse, let’s move on to what happens when you actually break these supposed rules in real life.
The Internet Is Dark and Full of Trolls
It’s very possible that, because you’re the Daryl Dixon of writing, you already knew about these grammar rules’ intricacies. If that’s the case, then you may be wondering if it’s really, truly okay to fly in the face of such inhuman grammatical beliefs when you’re creating content. As an editor, I hereby grant you permission to go forth and forge a happy, sunny, zombie-free zone with your words.
But I also know there are hordes of haters on the Internet—the self-appointed grammar police who live to nitpick in comment sections, no matter how good your storytelling is. When you correctly split an infinitive, end a sentence with a preposition, or use passive voice, they may chase you down with digital torches and pitchforks, even though you’re right. And it’s not just them, either—as the Content Standard previously reported, “74 percent of consumers notice the quality of spelling and grammar on brand websites. Nearly six out of 10 consumers say they would not use a brand whose website included poor grammar.” Heck, I’m one of those consumers.
Regardless, it’s always best to do what you know is right, and these three rules may very well fly under readers’ radars. You have two options if someone calls you out: ignore them, or correct them. Because I edit words all day, I often find myself disinclined to engage with trolls like these. If you, however, decide to respond, do so professionally.
“If readers have valid queries, you should address them when you can,” writes Anne Handley-Fierce, an associate editorial director at Skyword. “Just remember to always be professional in your response; never criticize the writer or the comment itself.”
Like Gene Roddenberry and his famous captains, you should feel free to boldly go where only brave writers have gone before—to the less-popular end of the zombie-grammar rule book. At the very least, you’ll make your editor smile.
Want to poke the trolls or kill some zombies? Let’s talk. Comment below or tweet @editorjess, then subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter.