Putting Zombie Rules to Rest for Good

Unless you’re watching Disney’s version of zombies, for the most part, zombies mean trouble.

I don’t know about you, but having someone kill me and eat my brains or, worse, turn me into a zombie doesn’t sound the least bit appealing.

Nope. I’d rather put zombies to rest for good, to never again rise from the grave.

Well, in grammar, we have some zombie rules that need to be put to rest for good, never again being touted as rules one must follow.


As a former English teacher, I taught some of these rules as actual rules. Gasp! I know. I feel the shame now, but I didn’t know better.

And so many of you don’t know better because you were taught it was a rule. It’s not your fault, but it’s time to bury those so-called rules.

Zombie Rule #1: You Can’t End a Sentence with a Preposition

Yes, you can end a sentence with a preposition and often it makes for better writing.

Writing should be clear and flow well, and often that means ending with a preposition. Of course, it can be awkward to end with a preposition, such as in the famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “Ending a sentence with a proposition is something up with which I will not put.”

That sounds awkward, and it impedes clarity.

But when you avoid ending with a preposition to follow a made-up rule, it often leads to clunky sentences:

From where do you come?

Where do you come from? = Better

This is exactly the thing about which I am concerned.

That is exactly what I’m concerned about. = Better

 

The only “problem” with ending with a preposition is when it is unnecessary. And, in that case, the issue isn’t ending with a preposition but rather that the sentence is clear without the preposition.

 

 

Where are you at?

Where are you? = Better (the “at” is unnecessary)

What are you doing that for?

Why are you doing that? = Better

 


Zombie Rule #2: You can’t split infinitives

A split infinitive is when you have a word or words in between “to” and the verb.

“To boldly go,” a line from Star Trek, is the classic example of a split infinitive.

To split or not to split the infinitive, that is the question.

Again, it is about flow and clarity.

If it is clearer and flows better without splitting the infinitive, then don’t. If it is clear and flows fine with the split infinitive, then split away.

It would be difficult to forget really everything that happened that day. = Awkward

It would be difficult to really forget everything that happened that day. = Better

And sometimes avoiding the split infinitive changes the intended meaning.

Let’s say you meant to say that the cleaning was done quickly.

The cleaning lady arrived quickly to clean the bathroom. = Wrong (this suggests she arrived quickly, not that she cleaned quickly)

The cleaning lady arrived to quickly clean the bathroom. = Right


Zombie Rule #3: You can’t start a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “because”

When I taught junior high English, I had to tell my students that their elementary teachers were wrong, and they can start a sentence with “and” or “but.” Often, elementary teachers teach this because students are young writers who might easily create fragments if they start sentences with those conjunctions.

But students heard “never, ever do this” and tried to play “correct the teacher” when they saw I had sentences starting with those words in class notes.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with starting a sentence with those words.

With “and” or “but,” it is a style choice: knowing when it would be better to keep the “and” or “but” statement in the same sentence and when it would be better or, at least, not make a difference if it started the next sentence.

He forgot his part of the project, but he didn’t tell me until five minutes before our presentation. = Works just fine

He forgot his part of the project. But he didn’t tell me until five minutes before our presentation. = Could be better if really want to emphasize that he didn’t tell.

Some people think you have to do the steps in order, but you don’t have to. = Works just fine

Some people think you have to do the steps in order. But you don’t have to. = Also works.

I earned it, but I was never given the reward. = Could be the better option if the context is such that “I earned it” leaves the reader thinking, Yeah we already know that so what is the point of this sentence? If that’s the case, you will want to have the “but” clause in the same sentence to complete the full picture of the thought.

I earned it. But I was never given the reward. = May or may not be the better option given the context.


Zombie Rule #4: Passive voice is always wrong


Passive voice is when you put the doer (subject) last: The truck was hit by the car.

Active voice is when you put the doer (subject) first: The car hit the truck.


Just because active voice is often the better choice doesn’t mean that passive voice is wrong.

In the Elements of Style by Strunk and White, they list “Use the active voice” as one of their style rules. Of course, they follow that with, “This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

But since the guide states, “USE the active voice,” it sounds like a rule. A rule that has perpetuated to become “Never use the passive voice.”

Admittedly, as an editor, I often rewrite passive sentences to make them active because, yes, in those instances, the active voice was more direct, concise, and powerful than the passive voice version.

However, I also leave passive voice when it is the better choice. This happens when the receiver (object) is more important than the doer (subject) or when the doer (subject) is unknown.

This example comes from the APA style guide.

The speakers were attached to either side of the chair.” = Passive voice is better because where the speakers were placed is more important than who did the placing.


A new temple will be built in Australia. = It isn’t important to know who will build it


Zombie Rule #5: A run-on sentence is a really long sentence

This one drives me batty. We are taught that “run-on sentences are not correct,” and that is true. If you have a run-on sentence, you are breaking a grammar rule, though you can choose to do so for stylistic reasons.

The problem is people know that rule, but then misunderstand what a run-on sentence is. A run-on sentence is not a long sentence. It has nothing to do with length, and everything to do with punctuation.

A run-on sentence occurs when two dependent clauses (two statements that can be sentences by themselves) are joined together incorrectly.

I like basketball, it is fun.

That sentence is not that long, but it is a run-on because two dependent clauses have been joined together by just a comma, which is not correct.

Admittedly, as an editor, I often rewrite passive sentences to make them active because, yes, in those instances, the active voice was more direct, concise, and powerful than the passive voice version.

That sentence is NOT a run-on, as it is perfectly punctuated.

Sure, one can argue it would be better to split the sentence up, depending on the audience and genre, but there isn’t anything wrong with it. It is perfectly punctuated.

I love long sentences. When they are used for stylistic effect and with purpose, they are powerful. So, please, stop believing you can’t write a long sentence because it is a run-on and, therefore, incorrect.

By all means, edit out longer sentences if they aren’t appropriate for your audience and/or genre or if it makes for a confusing, difficult read.

But. There. Is. Nothing. Technically. Wrong. With. A. Long. Sentence!


Zombie Rule #6: Never use double negatives

I struggled to explain double negatives to my seven-year-old daughter a few days ago. She completely misunderstood a big plot point of The High School Musical, the Musical, the Series (yes, that’s the name of the TV show).

In it, Nini sang a song with the following lyrics: “I guess I’m saying I don’t not love you.” Her boyfriend at the time didn’t say, “I love you” back, and they broke up.

My daughter thought they broke up because Nini had written a song to tell her boyfriend she didn’t love him.

It was a difficult concept to explain, so I just told her to trust me that Nini was saying she does love him.

So, look, if you’re writing for children, don’t use a double negative. It is confusing.

If you’re writing for adults, it can also be confusing.

Again, it comes back to clarity and flow.

If the double negative makes it confusing or impedes the flow, don’t use it.

But if it doesn’t, go ahead with that double negative. In fact, in Old English, double negatives were preferred.

Take this sentence from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: “There never was no many nowhere so virtuous.” This is actually a triple negative! 

Double negatives are often used in poetry and song lyrics, as they provide the right emphasis or beat pattern needed.

Take Bill Withers’s song: “Aint no sunshine when she’s gone.”

But they can also be used outside of lyrics and poetry.

He is not unattractive. = The speaker wants to imply he is attractive but doesn’t want to say it.

You can’t not go to the party. = Used to emphasize the positive, that they must go.


Conclusion

Bottom line, it comes down to clarity, flow, and style. If it is clearer, flows better, or gives a better stylistic feel, you can end a sentence with a preposition, split infinitives, start a sentence with a conjunction, use passive voice, write run-on sentences, and use double negatives.

Of course, you can break actual rules too for stylistic reasons.

The difference is, these zombie rules are not rules at all, so you’re not breaking anything by using them. The choice is not just about style; it is also about clarity and flow. If it is clear and flows well, you can keep it, knowing you aren’t breaking any rules.

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About Me

With a passion for words, collecting quotes, and reading books, I love all things writing related. I will admit to having a love-hate relationship with writing as I am constantly critical, but I feel a grand sense of accomplishment spending hours editing my own writing.

Lest you think I don’t have much of a life, I should add I also enjoy dancing, singing, acting, eating out, and spending quality time with my husband and adorable kids.

I’m pretty cool. And you may want to be my friend. But in order for that to happen, you will need to know more about me than this tiny box allows.

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