Between the Lines

Kathy Steffen

I’m a rule-follower. I admit it. But, as far as grammar goes, sometimes breaking a rule is a better communication choice. About two years ago, this column had a post on breaking grammar rules, and now it’s time to revisit! Grammar is constantly evolving. So rule-followers, come with me into a brave new world. And rule-breakers, here we go. Time to have some fun! (And don’t forget, as with everything, less is more. Break rules sparingly so you don’t wear your reader out.)

Quick Summary from 2019 Column: 1. Go ahead. Use fragmented sentences in your writing. They add personality. Really. Just don’t. Overdo it. 2. End with a preposition if your grammatically correct non-ending-preposition sentence sounds weird. This sentence structure is becoming more accepted and lends a less formal tone to your writing. 3. And finally, feel free to (on occasion) begin a sentence with a conjunction.

And Now for Something Completely Different: Don’t shy away from “they” for a singular pronoun. This is especially handy if you don’t know if it’s a “he” or “she” you are writing about. Today there are many who don’t identify strongly with either sex, so “they/them/theirs” are preferred gender-neutral pronouns, and using these is not only proper, but respectful.

According to the rules, a double negative will turn your sentence into a positive, but if it works and says what you want it to, use them. “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” would not be the same song without the double negative. I Can’t Get Any Satisfaction has no pizzazz. Would it have been the huge hit if grammatically correct? Who knows. Also, a double negative can have its own meaning: “My visit to the dentist was not unpleasant” makes a certain sense. “My visit to the dentist was enjoyable!” means something entirely different. Beware though — using a double negative can be confusing, so break this one with purpose.

Who and whom. Yeah, this one is confusing. Basically, “who” refers to the person doing the action, and “whom” refers to the person on the receiving end. “To whom should I give this advice?” sounds like I’m pretty pompous, right? “Who should I give this advice to?” Looky there, I’m breaking two rules at once, and the second choice sounds a lot more like me.

 A collective noun is one word that refers to a collection of things or people — like “family” or “group” or even “flock.” Collective nouns are singular and the verb must agree. However, consider the answer to “Where are your friends?” “A bunch is here” doesn’t sound quite right. “A bunch are here” is another choice. Either is correct (in Kathy’s Universe of Evolving Grammar). Use your judgment and go with what sounds right to your ear. 

Be mindful of grammar rules, but know breaking them is not an offense against humanity, and no Grammar Police will break down your door! No one speaks with perfect grammar, and rules become antiquated. My advice is to relax, trust yourself, and communicate in your voice.

Kathy Steffen is an award-winning author of “First, There Is a River,” “Jasper Mountain” and “Theater of Illusion.” She writes, creates art and gardens from her home in Spring Green that she shares with her husband and kitties.