Relax Already! 10 Grammar Rules You Can Stop Worrying About

By Geraldine Woods

Do alligators live in city sewers? Yes? You may be vulnerable to all sorts of myths, including some that concern grammar — ten, to be exact. Here are “rules” that never existed, as well as a couple that have passed their expiration date.

To not split an infinitive

In Latin and many other languages, an infinitive is a single word, the “family name” of a group of verb forms. In English, an infinitive is written this way: to walk, to eat, to study, and so forth. You can’t split an infinitive when it’s a single word. But when you have to and a verb, can you “split” it by inserting a description — to slowly walk, to never eat, to sometimes study? Despite the fact that some influential 19th century grammarians banned split infinitives, few writers care about this bogus “rule.” After all, the captains of all the Star Trek ships were on a mission “to boldly go” into unexplored territory. You can follow!

A good part of speech to end a sentence with

Another “rule” that is (or should be) dead on arrival is the idea that no sentence may end with a preposition, a part of speech that includes up, down, at, about, by, in, and similar words. If you follow this standard, you can’t ask a question like this one: “What did he text about?” About is a preposition, and as you see, in that perfectly normal sentence it sits at the end. Instead, followers of the no-prep-at-the-end want you to ask, “About what did he text?” See the problem? The “correct” version sounds stilted and stuffy. The “incorrect” version sounds natural. Go for natural, with the assurance that you’re not breaking any real rule of grammar.

What can or may I do?

How many times have you had a conversation resembling this one:

YOU: Can I go to the party this weekend, Mom?

MOM: You can go, but your verb is wrong. Ask again.

YOU: May I go to the party this weekend?

MOM: No, you may not. You don’t have my permission.

Mom has the final say over party attendance, but not grammar. The traditional distinction between can (ability) and may (permission) has largely faded. Unless you’re talking with someone who is stricter about grammar than your great-aunt’s English teacher, use can and may (and their relatives, could and might) interchangeably.

Formal greetings in emails and texts

If you’re writing a business letter on paper, you probably begin with a formal greeting such as Dear Mr. Spock or something similar. But if you’re typing on electronic media (emails, texts, instant messages), you can skip these formalities. Readers know that the content is directed to them because it lands in their inbox or on their phone screens. No need to identify the recipient.

Addresses and dates in electronic communication

In texts, tweets, emails and instant messages, you don’t have to worry about the To and From lines (except to write the correct address of the recipient) because the device you’re writing on formats those elements automatically. Nor do you have to worry about the date: The computer inserts it. Isn’t it wonderful to have less to worry about?

Periods and commas in some electronic messages

You can often bend, ignore, or break traditional punctuation and capitalization rules when you’re writing a text, tweet, or instant message to a friend. Emails are a bit more formal, but they too may diverge from the usual English-teacher format. Specifically, you may often ignore periods and commas when you’re pressed for time or space. Note: Everything you just wrote is subject to one important rule. If your reader may misunderstand what you’re trying to communicate, you’re in trouble. There’s a big difference between “Meet soon?” and “Meet soon.”

The jury are out on this rule

A collective noun is a word that names a group (jury, team, parliament, committee, and so forth). Once upon a time — and even now in the strictest grammatical circles — a collective noun was deemed singular if the group was acting as a unit: “The team plays its last game tomorrow.” The collective noun, traditionally, was plural if the members of the group were acting individually or in disagreement: “The jury are arguing about the verdict.”

In the United Kingdom, this rule is often observed, but in the United States, it’s fallen into the category of “the good old days.” In a situation in which the group acts as individuals or disagrees, dump the collective noun and refer to the members instead: “The jury members are arguing about the verdict.”

That? Who?

Lots of writers obsess about who and that — specifically, whether the pronoun that may refer to human beings. If you’re one of those writers, stop worrying. That works for both people and things, though who is more common for people. Therefore, these sentences are both correct:

“The traffic cops that write tickets earn more than their salary in fines.” (that = traffic cops)

“The cop who warned that bicyclist to follow traffic laws is my hero.” (who = cop)

To refer to a specific person by name, go for who, not that:

“Mary, who raises lambs, wears nothing but fleece.”


Don’t use who or whom for things:

“The fleece that Mary wears is as white as snow.”

Who/whom is correct?

Whom and its variation, whomever have traditionally been used as objects, as in these sentences:

To whom are you speaking?

Choose whomever you like for that job.

In conversational English, though, many people these days drop whom and whomever and substitute the subject pronouns who and whoever for every job in a sentence. Relax about whom/whomever in speech. In formal writing, though, follow the traditional rules.

Hopefully this rule has faded

Did you know that nice once meant “neat”? Now, of course, nice means “friendly and helpful.” Nice, like many words, evolved. Once a critical mass of people accept the definition that used to be wrong, the definition becomes the right definition. So if you hear that hopefully means “with hope in voice or manner” and not “to be hoped that,” smile. You know better! You can say, “Hopefully, it won’t rain tomorrow” without violating any grammar rules.