Ignore These 10 Always-Never Rules

In a recent Punctuation for Professionals online class, an attendee said she had learned this rule: to always use a comma before because. 

That "rule" makes no sense. We need a comma before because only rarely. Most commas before because appear for another reason having nothing to do with the word because.

Examples:

  • We chose Monday, July 6, because it’s the best date for everyone. (The comma before because is necessary because of the date following the day of the week.)
  • The event will take place in Chicago, Illinois, because of its central location. (Commas should surround a state, province, or country when one of its cities precedes it.)
  • Martha said she liked peach pie, because she wanted to please her mother-in-law. (The comma prevents running together "She liked peach pie because she wanted to please her mother-in-law.")
  • I told my supervisor I was late, because I assumed he would hear about it anyway. (The comma prevents the confusing β€œI was late because I assumed he would hear about it anyway.")

Sometimes we remember rules incorrectly, adding always or never to them. But sometimes rules just make no sense.

Ignore these always and never "rules":

1. "Never use a comma before and." This rule wins for craziness. Many sentence constructions require a comma before and. Read my blog post "Commas With And" to recognize them. 

2. "Always use a comma before quotation marks." Sometimes, yes. But not always. A comma would be wrong in these sentences, for instance:

  • I read Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise" yesterday. 
  • The phrase "bleeding edge" confuses many people and bothers others. 

3. "Always spell out numbers that are less than 10." Nope–it's not that simple. Consider these correct sentences: 

  • This blouse is a size 8. 
  • Page 5 has a typo. 
  • The price rose 6 percent. 
  • See you at 2 p.m. 

4. "Never start a sentence with because." Not a rule! You can start a sentence with any word you choose (including and and but). 

5. "Never end a sentence with a preposition." Go right ahead. These sentences work just fine:

  • Type the name you want to search for. 
  • Where is Saman from? 

6. "Never split an infinitive." For the right emphasis in your sentence, do it. These split infinitives work:

  • I have been taught to always capitalize proper nouns. 
  • Her goal is to eventually start her own business. 

7. "Always include the other person's name before using me." Always? No. When you are the preferred choice, use me first. 

  • Please call me or John Cavanaugh, my associate. 

8. "Never start a sentence with in business writing." Don't believe it! Here's what one individual who asked me about this "rule" wrote: "It has always been taught to me that a sentence should not begin with I." Following that nutty rule had contorted his sentence, which could have been simply "I learned that a sentence should not begin with I." Remember: A sentence can start with any word you want.

9. "Never use a contraction in business writing." Would not you hate to have to follow that rule?

10. "When using bullet points, always have at least two." No, not necessarily so. Although one item doesn't make a list, you can make one point and bullet it. Notice how Number 7 above has just one bulleted example. 

Can you add to my list of always-never rules? Please do. 

Lynn
Syntax Training

20 COMMENTS

  1. I really had #7 beat into my head. And(that was fun to start with “And”) if I’m not thinking carefully I would write “Please call John Cavanaugh or myself” which is wrong. (Isn’t it?)

    I was taught to write “Please feel free to call me, or John Cavanaugh if I’m not available.” if I am the first alternative. But now I know I don’t have to do that…Can you tell #4 vexes me as well? Great article and very liberating.

  2. Always rule #3 is too drastic by saying “numbers”. There is a variant to it that I have heard many times: “Always spell QUANTITIES that are less than 10. Your examples do not fall into this rule, which it is fine.

  3. Toni, you would be surprised at the number of people who have learned not to start a sentence with “because.” I think well-meaning elementary school teachers used the rule so students wouldn’t write fragments such as “Because I don’t like lima beans.”

    Yes, it’s crazy.

    Lynn

  4. Hi Lisa,

    You are right about what’s wrong (“please call . . . myself”).

    Another thought on pronoun order: I have not found a rule that says “I” should come second when there is another subject. But I do know it grates to hear things like “I and my wife.” I believe our preference is based on what we are used to hearing, not on any rules.

    Like you, I feel good starting sentences with “and” and “but.”

    Lynn

  5. Fernando, thanks for your excellent rewriting of the numbers rule. The word “quantities” does work better than “numbers.”

    Still, the many exceptions mean we can’t say “always.” I just checked the latest “Associated Press Stylebook,” which gives these quantity examples:

    –2 tablespoons of sugar
    –4 miles
    –$2 billion
    –5 cents
    –3 parts cement to 1 part water
    –7 to 9 knots
    –up by 3 (score)

    Also, when we want a number to stand out–for example, in a job application–we use figures:

    –8 years of experience

    Unfortunately, I have to ignore the “always” in your rule. But I do appreciate the term “quantities.”

    Lynn

  6. Thank you for this article. My supervisor follows the rule of not ending a sentence with a preposition and it often frustrates me. But I comment today because of my frustration with the current proliferation of the incorrect usage of “myself”. It is driving me nutty! Please write or re-post anything you have on the correct usage of this word. Most use it incorrectly in place of me, I suspect thinking they sound more intelligent. Sadly it has the opposite effect. (to me anyway)

  7. Very useful reminders, here are another couple of Always-Never Rules you can safely break:

    1. Never start a sentence with “and”.
    2. Never have a one sentence paragraph.

  8. This was a very interesting article and I am now reflecting on all the rules taught in English classes. What I find most annoying is that people tend to write like they speak..if you pay attention to co-workers and some supervisors. You have to distinguish between the two in your head, it would much easier to speak correctly so that you can write correctly. Just my 2 cents or my two cents?

  9. Angela, you are right about the challenge between what you learn and how people around you speak and write. We all have to contend with it.

    Regarding “just my 2 cents,” “The Gregg Reference Manual” says both versions are correct. The two rules it shares are:

    1. For amounts under a dollar, ordinarily use figures and the word “cents”: 4 cents a pound, 50-cent tokens.

    2. An isolated, nonemphatic reference to cents may be spelled out: I wouldn’t give two cents for that car.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Lynn

  10. The one that really bugs me is when people put a th or rd after a date, i.e. The movie will have its premiere on June 10th. The th is completed in your mind and doesn’t need to be written out.

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