Are You a Stickler for Good Grammar?

good grammar

Are you a stickler for good grammar?

“I don’t like to end sentences with prepositions,” my friend said while we were discussing ways to restructure a sentence.

“But it’s fiction,” I told her, “In college, as a creative writing major, I was taught to learn the rules, and then break them.”

In this case, it sounded unnatural to write the sentence without ending it with a preposition. Following the rules too rigidly is especially problematic in dialogue. Nobody would say “To which store are you going?” No. We say, “Which store are you going to?”

Writers need to value good grammar, but sometimes it makes sense to break the rules.

Good Grammar vs. Breaking the Rules

There are countless arguments for sticking to the rules of proper grammar, just as there countless reasons to break those rules.

Ultimately, each writer has to decide whether or not to be a stickler for good grammar. Some writers intentionally toss out the rules and develop a writing style outside of those rules. Others adhere to proper grammar strictly and evenly.

Maybe there’s a nice spot in the middle where you learn the rules and then figure out when it’s appropriate or desirable to break them.

Grammar is Good

Practicing proper grammar has its advantages:

  • Adhering to strict grammar rules demonstrates superior language and writing skills.
  • A thorough knowledge of grammar is a sign of intelligence in a writer.
  • Accurate grammar indicates a writer who has mastered the craft.
  • Following grammar rules all the time adds an interesting challenge to the writing process.
  • Practicing good grammar keeps the language consistent and concise with well-defined rules.

Rules Are Made to Be Broken

If you do break the rules of grammar, it sure helps to know them first. Otherwise, your writing might come off as amateurish. If you’re planning on letting your good grammar go bad (or at least naughty), then make sure you know the difference between good grammar, lawless grammar, and plain bad grammar.

  • Since spoken language rarely adheres to proper grammar, writing that relieves itself of the rules can be easier for readers to absorb.
  • Dialogue¬†that sticks to the rules of grammar often sounds unnatural.
  • Taking creative license with one’s art means breaking the rules.
  • Bending the rules or guidelines adds punch and style to a piece of writing; one example would be starting a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Tweaking the rules can help a writer develop a personal style.

Your Thoughts on Grammar

Do you think good grammar is important for writers to master? Should we even bother with all those annoying rules? Many writers feel that we should focus on voice or story and leave grammar to proofreaders and copyeditors. Others say that understanding proper grammar is a basic writing skill.

What’s your position?

Share your thoughts on good grammar and breaking the rules of grammar in the comments.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


16 Responses to “Are You a Stickler for Good Grammar?”

  1. Chimezirim Odimba says:

    I believe the most important thing a writer should think about is his/her target audience. If they are people who will be put off by a teeny tiny grammatical error then, by all means, make sure you don’t break the rules. But if you are writing for an audience that is more down-to-earth and care more about your overall delivery then it’s a very good thing to bend the rules to deliver your most wanted response.

    • I agree 100%. Knowing your audience will certainly inform how you approach grammar. Having said that, if it’s an audience that has poor grammar skills or no interest in grammar, writers aren’t doing their readers any favors by producing sloppy, mistake-riddled work. All writers should strive to get the basics right.

  2. Bill Polm says:

    My take: good grammar is good when it is actually grammar we’re talking, not rules perpetuated by legalists who think they are talking grammar when in fact they advocating rules based on ignorance. For example, like not starting a sentence with “And” or “But.” A rather foolish convention that is constantly violated by professional writers who write quite well. Or, not ending a sentence with a preposition or not splitting an infinitive. Obeying such prohibitions (interesing that most are negative) doesn’t make you a good writer.

    • Diane Hughes says:

      Ditto to everything that Bill Polm said.

      I think writers should have a good knowledge of the rules and then employ the skills of a good editor. It’s easier for the people on both sides of the pen, and, I think, a better result for the reader in the end.

      • So true! As writers, our goal should be to communicate clearly. If the best way to do that means bending a few rules (or violating a few best practices) then so be it!

    • I would say all the examples you’ve given are good rules of thumb but not hard-and-fast rules. In my editing work, I encounter tons of sentences that unnecessarily start with conjunctions. Sometimes it works better when you simply link it to the previous sentence or start the new sentence with another word. My approach is to use conjunctions as sentence starters when I want to grab the reader’s attention. My favorite example: And that’s not all. I consider conjunctions at the beginning of sentences, dangling prepositions, and split infinitives red flags. I always examine them closely to make sure the sentence is written in the best way possible. If it is, then great!

  3. Lydia says:

    I agree with the above. In my grammar loving perspective, I think that it’s extremely important to use necessary and proper guidelines in writing, however, I also believe that if a writer has grown enough and has a good grammatical foundation, it is okay to adapt grammar in order to embrace their personal style. (One of the unique features of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was its improper dialogue.)

    • Well said, Lydia. However, I don’t consider Tom Sawyer as having improper grammar. Technically, it did, but I would say it’s something other than bad grammar when a novel is written in dialect, and in fact, it’s probably much harder to pull that off successfully than to learn all the real grammar rules and follow them to the letter.

  4. Kelvin Kao says:

    I am generally fine with seeing the rules broken, as long as they don’t cause confusion. Writing things like “they looks nice” is not okay, but the preposition thing? Not so much of a big deal.

    Actually, according to the style guide of our college newspaper (I interned at the copy desk briefly so I read the entire style book), you should never write “as a creative writing major” since you are not a major. Well, unless you are in the military, I guess. It should be “as a creative writing major student” , “as a creative writing major graduate”, or something like that.

    • That’s a bit silly. Everyone uses “major” that way. I realize it might not be proper, but the other options sound ridiculous to my ear.

      I’m glad you shared the example “they looks nice.” That’s something I didn’t delve into — writing that is flat-out wrong. When we talk about starting sentences with conjunctions or using dangling prepositions, we’re debating whether to follow the rules; we’re asking which way sounds best? A phrase like “they looks nice” is just flat-out incorrect and makes no sense. Except maybe in some poetry!

  5. I do love this topic. I feel a nasty pleasure in correcting others’ grammar as they speak to me. Yet, I understand we live in an informal society, especially in speech. When it comes to writing, I pride myself on knowing the rules and the exceptions to those rules. When writing my fiction, I take great pleasure in breaking those rules when appropriate. As writers, we must bend and break the rules to add flare to our style, or just to make it realistic. However, we must do this tastefully.

    To never end a sentence on a preposition… that’s simply unheard of.

    I have more.

    • Do you verbally correct others’ grammar as they speak to you, or are you just correcting them in your mind? I don’t think I could attempt to correct people’s speech. Everyone I know (including me) speaks in a way that is quite divorced from proper grammar. However, I get that “nasty pleasure” by correcting material that I read, and I suspect more than a few people have had the pleasure of correcting some of my writing in the same manner!

  6. Chris says:

    Grammar is extremely important as a writer. If you don’t know the rules how do you know how to break them? Apart from publishers loking at your grammar and possibly rejecting work because it doesn’t hit the mark, your readers may misunderstand what you are saying because of badly formed sentences. The English language as it is spoken now breaks rules that were made years ago. If grammar rules are not broken your language runs the danger of sounding archaic and old-fashioned.

  7. Wendy S says:

    As others have stated, I think it is important we know the grammar rules. Sometimes I find when I have to rework a sentence so it does not break a grammar rule, I end up with a much more artistic piece of work than I had originally. I think it depends on who your audience is and what type of art you are creating. Words are our medium and we have to decide how to use them, whether it is inside our outside the box. Thanks for the great article and interesting comments!

    • Well said, Wendy. Thanks for pointing out that spending time on a sentence to ensure grammatical correctness can lead to a more artistic piece of writing. I have experienced that as well, and it deserves mention here.