Why you need to kill zombie grammar rules

Don’t panic, we’re not in an episode of The Walking Dead. A zombie rule is a grammar rule that isn’t actually a rule. You know the ones—your English teacher taught them to you because their teacher drilled them into their heads as their teacher did before them. To break these rules was a cardinal sin, punishable by lashings of red pen across your page. 

Zombie rules: the origin story 

Alas, no matter how many times we put these rules to bed, they keep coming back (hence the name), even though they have no real grammatical basis for existing. But where did they come from? 

In the 18th century, a bunch of grammarians had the hots for Latin and wanted English to look more like it. So to make it sexier, they made up loads of rules for English, some of them not making any sense at all, and those alleged rules trickled down through generations like a bad family secret. And here we are today.

These rules have got to go, not least because they can limit your writing and actually take away from the colour and impact of a piece of text. And yet there are those among us who would cling to them for dear life. We’re going to look at five of the most popular zombie rules to vanquish right now.

Rule: Don’t you dare split infinitives 

This rule makes sense in Latin, but is completely unnecessary in English. It’s when one or more words, usually an adverb, is put in the middle of an infinitive, thereby splitting said infinitive:

  • To go where no man has gone before.
  • To boldly go where no man has gone before. 

The thing is, writing this the “right” way according to zombie rules could change the meaning or emphasis of the sentence. It’s a completely arbitrary rule, and adverbs should always go where they sound most natural.

I have to admit, this problem doesn’t crop up too often for me. But then, I tend to keep my use of adverbs to a minimum anyway because to quote Stephen King in his excellent book, On Writing: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”   

Rule: Don’t even think about starting a sentence with a conjunction

This rule might have been created to deter children from stringing sentence upon sentence together. You know what it’s like: “I went to the beach, and then we saw a starfish, and then we got some ice cream, and then I pet the dog, and, and, and.”

But sticking to it can actually interrupt the flow of things when you want to use a particular sentence construction. Conjunctions at the beginning of sentences can be powerful, not just in narrative but in dialogue too:

  • They close narrative distance, bringing the reader closer to the narrator or character, and making the text sound more natural or authentic.
  • Like a bit of drama? Conjunctions at the start of a sentence can also add suspense and turn expectations on their head. 

And just like that, we’ve slain another zombie rule. See what I did there? 

Rule: Don’t put prepositions at the end of a sentence 

This is one of those ‘sounds fine in Latin, bit mental in English’ rules. The best way to explain this one is with an example. Which one would you rather say:

  • To whom do you want to speak?
  • Who do you want to speak to?

It’s the second one, right? It certainly rolls off the tongue more easily—unless you’re an actual living, breathing Roman who speaks Latin and English. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong or less posh for using option number two. Oh, and if they do, direct them to this blog to help improve their lives.  

Rule: Don’t be using no double negatives

While double negatives might not be standard English, they certainly have their place in language. Here are a couple of examples:

  • “I didn’t see nothin’. Now get.”
  • This level of rainfall is not unusual given the time of year.

A well-placed double negative can help add emphasis and emotionality to non-fiction, and give colour and character to fiction in the form of regionally distinct voices, for example. And anything that helps the reader to really hear the voice of a character or narrator has to be a good thing, right? Right. 

Rule: You simply cannot use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun 

Using ‘they’ allows you to write clearly and succinctly while avoiding gendered language.

Now the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun has been around since the 14th century or so. But it wasn’t until 2019 that the American Psychological Association accepted it as an acceptable singular pronoun. And frankly, who are they to tell us what to do with words?

Zombie diplomacy 

When it comes to zombie rules, here’s the bottom line. Even if you don’t like it, as a professional editor, you need to be objective. It’s not about you or your preferences, it’s about your client, the text, and the reader. It’s about making sure what’s being communicated is clear and correct according to the style guide you’ve agreed to follow (even if it’s teeming with zombie rules).

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