7 Grammar Rules You Should Always Follow (And 5 You Don't Have To)
Using proper grammar when you communicate with others can help ensure that you are well understood. Punctuation and word selection are also important, and when used with appropriate grammar your communications can be impactful, information-dense, and easy to understand.
Some grammar rules are more steadfast than others, and some rules have ceased to be used in modern day communications. Once a specific grammar rule is no longer widely used, it can become confusing or awkward in certain kinds of communication.
7 Rules You Should Always Follow
There are some rules for grammar that should be followed and are relatively simple to remember as you formulate your communications. Whether your transmission is spoken or written, sticking to basic grammar rules can help increase the impact of your message and make it easier for your audience avoid misunderstandings.
Split infinitives can be tricky to avoid, but getting in the habit of avoiding them in your communications can significantly improve the clarity of your sentences. While split infinitives are frequently used in a variety of different communications, proper grammar dictates that when you use the infinitive of a particular verb, you shouldn’t separate it from the word “to.”
Informal Example: “to bravely go where no dog has previously gone.”
Correct Example: “to go bravely where no dog has previously gone.”
There is some controversy in modern English about the use of split infinitives and in some circles split infinitives are wholly accepted. However, it's best to know the rule exists and to use it for formal communications as needed.
Using An Active Voice
In English its standard that the verb comes after the subject in a sentence. Some examples of this structure look like this:
“Tom brushed the horse.”
“The cat liked Stacy.”
“I did not like the snake.”
In all of these sentences, you can see that the subject comes first to let the reader know what the sentence is about, and it is then followed by a verb. Changing this order will create sentences that don't make much sense and are hard for a reader to follow.
Using an active voice helps keep your communications clear and creates a predictable structure for the person receiving your message. This structure is helpful particularly in written communications where you’ll find it used consistently over and over again.
Use Consistent Grammatical Form
Using consistent grammatical form is otherwise referred to as "parallel construction," and it can be quite helpful for simplifying sentences and making them easier to read. Parallel construction also relies somewhat on proper punctuation in the sentence to ensure that the various parts of the sentence are accurately arranged.
Example: "I like employees that are efficient, reliable, and have empathy."
Correct Example: “I like employees that are efficient, reliable, and empathetic.”
Looking at both of these sentences its clear which one sounds better, but it's important to note that the word “are” works with each of the three adjectives that are listed later on in the sentence.
The word “empathy” gets changed and “have” is removed so that the three adjectives are in the same form which helps to limit confusion.
Example: “You should check your backpack, bedroom, and examine the kitchen.”
Correct Example: “You should check your backpack, bedroom, and kitchen.”
In this set of examples, it's easy to see that "examine the…" is unnecessary and only makes the sentence less clear than it should be. Merely listing the rooms in the same form creates an easily read list of nouns and works the same way that it does with the example using adjectives above.
Avoid Dangling Modifiers
Dangling modifiers are often referred to as "danglers," and can quickly change the meaning of a sentence and create confusion.
Example: “Heading to the store, a cat ran out in front of my car.”
The issue with this sentence is that the part before the comma is incomplete, and there is potential for confusion. Although this kind of sentence structure is not uncommon in modern-day English and most individuals will know what you mean, it's best to be as transparent as possible.
Correct Example: As I was heading to the store, a cat ran out in front of my car.”
Dangling modifiers are much more common in informal spoken English and are more widely used in some areas of the US than others. Danglers should be avoided for formal written communications, and spoken messages whenever possible.
Each Sentence Needs A Noun And A Verb
This rule is pretty simple, but it may be surprising to see how often a noun or a verb gets left out of a sentence. It is also not uncommon for people to attempt to include multiple nouns or verbs in a single sentence without the proper structure to help it all make sense.
Example: "Not sure what she's talking about."
Correct Example: “I’m not sure what she’s talking about.”
The addition of “I’m” in the second example provides a subject and also a noun for the sentence. While the sentence isn’t perfect because it ends with a preposition, it highlights a common English phrase that is missing a noun but is still widely understood.
Example: "I'm not sure what she's about."
Correct Example: “I’m not sure what she’s talking about.”
In this example, there was the verb "talking" missing, but in many circles, this English phrase would be readily understood nevertheless. English phrases can vary based on the region they are spoken in, but proper grammar usage means not deviating from the set grammar rules.
This rule is fairly obvious and almost always followed by native English speakers. The beginning word of each sentence should be capitalized regardless of whether it is a noun or article.
Example: "The cat is brown."
"Marjorie is walking the dog."
“Dogs are often kept as pets.”
In these examples, you can see that names, nouns, and articles that start a sentence are all capitalized; however, the nouns or articles that follow are not. Names in sentences are also capitalized as follows:
Examples: “John likes to walk for exercise.”
“Have you seen Kaitlin today?”
"The grocery store named Marketplace is having a sale."
Apostrophes, Commas, And Other Punctuation
Punctuation is an integral part of correct grammar and using it well can make the difference between well-formed sentences and undecipherable collections of words. Punctuation also has the power to quickly change the meaning of a sentence depending on how it is placed or omitted.
Examples: "I do not brush John's dog, nor do I walk him."
“Candace brushed her rabbit, and I drank soda.”
These are two examples of how a comma can connect two ideas seamlessly into a single sentence. The first part of the sentence before the comma is complete, and the comma connects that complete idea to the second part forming one single thought or sentence.
Examples: “Mary’s dog is brown.”
“Tom’s plane is red and white.”
In each of these examples, an apostrophe is used in a person's name to help indicate their ownership over a noun or object.
Many other forms of punctuation can have an impact on grammar and its worth a simple online search if you aren't sure what to use in a specific case. Punctuation can be a beneficial tool for creating sentence structure once you get the hang of it and it can also help to clarify your ideas.
5 Grammar Rules You Can Safely Ignore
Grammar rules are great for getting your message across without errors, but it can also be awkward to use in everyday conversation, or in less formal communications. Here are five rules that you can likely ignore as modern conversational English has evolved to accommodate these exceptions.
Ending A Sentence With A Preposition
This grammar rule has recently begun to be contested as individuals frequently put prepositions at the end of sentences without remorse. Prepositions are technically discouraged from being placed at the end of sentences, but modern English has begun to allow the breaking of this rule in informal and formal communications alike.
Prepositions serve to describe the relationship between different words and phrases, and they often refer to things like:
- Specific times
Examples of prepositions include: are, from, to, before, under, and with.
Correct Example: “With whom should I watch this movie with?”
Informal Example: “Who should I watch this movie with?”
Treating Certain Nouns Like They Are Singular
There are certain kinds of nouns called "collective nouns" that are used to describe a group of people, places, or things. Examples of collective nouns include words like: bunch, group, or none.
These nouns are singular even though they are used to describe multiple things so you can say “a bunch” or even “many bunches.” However, you cannot say “many bunch” as this doesn’t follow the rule.
Examples: “A bunch of people…”
“A group of tigers…”
“None of the reindeer…”
In each of the examples, the noun is plural instead of singular once a verb is added to the sentence structure.
Where it gets tricky is when you add verbs which sound better when the nouns are treated as plural, even though it goes against the rule.
“Correct” Example: “A bunch of people is at the bar.”
Informal Examples: "A bunch of people are at the bar."
“A group of tigers slept in the forest.”
“None of the reindeer ate the apples.”
Who And Whom
Although "who" and "whom" are often used interchangeably, they are different. However, it can be argued that "whom" is on its way out and is being replaced by "who" in several instances.
“Correct” Example: “With whom am I speaking?”
Informal Example: “Who am I speaking with?”
In the above example, the correct version is frequently used in formal situations, and you may have heard it used commonly over the phone. The second informal example is often used by marketers and others who are aiming for a friendlier tone.
The rule for these two words is easy to break and doing so doesn't impact the clarity of your message. Instead, each word sets a different level of formality in your communications, and either is perfectly acceptable in most situations.
That And Which
These two words are another perfect example of how a rule can become outdated over time as the way people speak and communicate changes. Each word serves the same purpose of connecting bits of information within a sentence, and they are frequently used interchangeably.
Examples: “The dog that looks like a bear lives there.”
“The dog, which looks like a bear, lives there.”
Although these two sentences seem very similar, “which” and “that” change the meaning of each of them slightly. The first sentence emphasizes the dog looking like a bear as the critical piece of information while the second sentence adds in detail about looking bear-like as if it's just an interesting addition.
If you are ever stuck on which word you should use, “that” is a pretty safe bet as it works well in either case most of the time.
Less And Fewer
Less and fewer are interesting words that are also used interchangeably in most common communications. A familiar example is the signage at grocery stores that label specific checkout lanes as “10 items or less.”
When a subject such as the example above is something that can be quantifiable, then "fewer" is the correct word to use. Since the checkout lane only allows ten items, the sign should read "10 items or fewer."
The word “less” is typically reserved for more abstract ideas that aren’t quantifiable and the word also doesn’t have a true plural form.
Example: "I have fewer apples than you."
“If I go to the gym after work, I am less likely to go grocery shopping.
Although this rule is easy to remember, you can frequently use either word without it sounding out of place or creating any confusion. Both of these words have been used interchangeably in everyday English for so long, that this rule is often forgotten.