Rules Are for Breaking


Have you ever wondered how to say something well without breaking a rule of grammar?

People occasionally ask me about certain rules of grammar. Of course, I do my best to oblige, but the very word “rule” starts us on an unhelpful path.

The only rule that matters is the one that says, “writing should serve the reader.” It’s the experience of reading that a writer should be concerned about, not the laws of writing. For every writing or grammatical rule that you give me, I can give you successful and respected writers who have ignored it.

Or, rather, they haven’t ignored it. They’ve understood it and chosen the right time to go a different way. And that’s really the point.

Grammatical rules aren’t rules

Grammatical rules aren’t chains. They’re not law. They’re not even rules, really. Instead, they’re very good advice from the ages.

Whatever the rule is, you can break it and still be a good writer. But you should break it mindfully. That is, you should know that you’re doing it and have a good reason. The rules are there because they’re usually the best way to accomodate your readers’ need for clarity and precision. But if you know that, and you know that breaking the rule will be better for the reader, then go for it!

An example: Most style guides say that the period goes inside the quotation marks, “like this.” At the very least, I think most people would say that you should be consistent with your punctuation.

But as many tech writers know, it’s common to put the period outside the quotation marks when it’s important to be clear about what’s being quoted. After all, I don’t want the reader to put a period at the end when I say, “visit my website at”

Dangle a modifier if it will help your audience. Sentence fragment? Works for me. But do it mindfully. Remember your audience and its needs. The rules are only guidelines, but they’re often very good guidelines.

All this goes for literally every rule of grammer and writing that exists. Some rules, you’ll find yourself following all the time (“Me go store buy milk” wouldn’t make it past most editors), but it doesn’t mean that they’re inviolable.

Am I right about this? Am I missing something important? Let me know!


4 Responses to “Rules Are for Breaking”

  1. July 16, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    Regarding the title, “Rules are for Breaking,” you should certainly be aware that title capitalization requires that all verbs be capitalized. This includes “Is,” “Am,” “Be,” and “Are.” Any style guide will confirm this.

    • July 16, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

      I think it’s funny that you said that it’s REQUIRED, considering the post that you’re commenting on. I changed the title, because I do like neatness, but seriously!

  2. October 11, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

    Hi Robert,
    I found your post informative and humorous. As a Technical Writer and Translator, I encounter this same dilema quite often. I recently proofread an HTML source code and discussed with the author whether it was grammatically correct to add the word “the” in the context of the sentence. It’s definitely important to have a sense of humor when it comes to grammar.
    Keep having fun with grammar!

    • November 30, 2015 at 12:16 am #

      Thanks, Meirav!

Leave a Reply