Zombie Grammar Rules, Part 2: Eat Some Brains with Skyword Editors
Storytelling Content Creation

Zombie Grammar Rules, Part 2: Feast on Brains with Skyword Editors

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About a month ago, you were infected with zombie grammarism. That old, rotten rule book sunk its teeth right in and gave you the license—nay, the desire—to go forth and pepper in split infinitives, sentence-ending prepositions, and passive voice as needed when you write. And not only did we editors condone it, but we also told you to bite back at the Internet trolls who whine that it’s wrong.

So, tell me: How do you feel? Are you still on a diet, only eating those outdated, misunderstood, exaggerated, or wrong grammar rules? Or do you feel free to shamble around and gobble up words to your cold, dead heart’s content?

I’m hoping for the latter. And in light of that, I polled readers and Skyword editors both to offer you a second helping of zombie grammar rules. Open your mind—literally.

Ravens on the wireUsing the Singular “They”

Commenters on my original article clamored for permission to use the singular “they.” Writing this gender-neutral, third-person pronoun to refer to just one person (as opposed to the terribly unwieldy “he or she”) is hotly contested, with some people saying it makes perfect sense and others complaining that it’s not grammatically correct.

Well, my friends, I bring good news: In content creation, we’re pretty much always okay with it. And we’re not alone—as the Oxford University Press states, “The use of plural pronouns to refer back to a singular subject isn’t new: it represents a revival of a practice dating from the sixteenth century. It’s increasingly common in current English and is now widely accepted both in speech and in writing.”

So go ahead, “they” it up. And while you’re at it, try “their” and “them” too. They’re not going to kill you.

Starting a Sentence with “Because”

Skyword Editorial Manager Colleen Hughes brought this one to my attention. “Teachers basically don’t expect kids to know how to construct a sentence with a dependent clause,” she writes, “but then people tend to just remember that rule rather than the reasoning behind it.”

Let me explain. “Independent clause” is another way of saying “complete sentence,” which means a “dependent clause” is incomplete—it depends on something else to finish it off. The word “because” can begin dependent clauses, as in, “Because the werewolf came out at night.” Traditionally, this would make up the second half of a complete sentence: “The townspeople felt frightened because the werewolf came out at night.” But if we start with the dependent clause and use a comma, it still works: “Because the werewolf came out at night, the townspeople felt frightened.” Not quite as smooth, but then, the good things in life rarely are.

If you’re compelled to begin a sentence with “because,” go for it. Just, as Grammar Girl explains, make sure you’re writing a complete sentence and not a fragment. And don’t be surprised if your editor switches it around. Sometimes we do that.

Starting a Sentence with a Coordinating Conjunction

In researching this series, I learned that people are most unsure about what to do at the beginnings and ends of sentences. This a-shamblin’ rule is yet another that falls into that category—and it’s a big one, because Julia Gilstein and Nick D’Errico, two Skyword associate editors, pointed it out.

If you think you shouldn’t begin a sentence with or, but, or and (the trio of coordinating conjunctions), my guess is an English teacher told you not to. Apparently, nineteenth-century schoolteachers got annoyed at students who overused these words, so they took the easy way out and banned them altogether. “Generations of children were taught they should ‘never’ begin a sentence with a conjunction,” writes David Crystal in The Story of English in 100 Words. “Some still are.”

Want proof that it’s okay? Turn to section 5.206 of the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, the Content Standard’s rule book of choice:

There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as ‘and,’ ‘but,’ or ‘so.’ In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.

As always, though, make sure your sentence is clear and do away with any extraneous words. If you don’t need that “and” at the beginning, chop it out. If the sentence would read better if you just combined the coordinating conjunction with the preceding thought, do that instead. (An example? “Zombie Marie Antoinette could still eat cake. But she preferred brains.” It’s acceptable, but it would work better combined with a comma.) Brevity and accuracy are two facets of good writing that will never die.

Pink and Purple Sunset

Other Stuff You Might Be Doing Wrong

Let’s just be honest: English is a weird language. When I asked my fellow editors about the zombie grammar rules they’d like to see demystified, Editorial Manager Sean Coombs gave me a list of things he corrects all the time. Let’s quickly run through the basics:

  • That/Which: I’m going to quote Grammar Girl for this one: “If removing the words that follow would change the meaning of the sentence, use ‘that.’ Otherwise, ‘which’ is fine.” Basically, “Vampires that bite scare me,” but, “Vampires, which drink blood, should be staked.” Bam.
  • Who/Whom: Mentally answer the sentence’s question, replacing “who” or “whom” with “he” or “him.” If “he” works, “who” is the way to go. If “him” does, pick “whom.” Example: Who nearly ate a whole plate of brains? He did. He ate almost every piece. But to whom did he offer the last bite? He offered it to him. (This works if you’re not asking direct questions, too—just rephrase the sentence as a question in your head, then answer.)
  • Jane and Me/I: Take “Jane and” out and use whatever you’d say if you were just talking about yourself. That whole “write ‘me’ at the end of a sentence” thing works in most cases, but not all.
  • Who/That This one is easy. Use “who” for people. All the time. No exceptions. Use “that” for companies, animals, things, ideas, etc.
  • Double vs. single quotations: Just alternate. You open a quote with double quotations. For a quote within a quote, use single. A quote within a quote within a quote? Back to double. (But just to make it complicated, it’s reversed in the UK. Start with single quotes if you’re writing across the pond.)
  • “Reason why”: For all that is good and holy, omit the “why”! “That’s the reason I love her” means the exact same thing as “That’s the reason why I love her,” and it sounds so much better.

In Closing…

We’re all storytellers here, and telling good stories means taking some liberties with language. It’s just a fact. Do you have questions about anything we discussed, or want to add to the mix? Comment below. I’ll answer. And don’t forget to subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter for more writing tips, tricks, and good old-fashioned zombie-grammar killing.

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