Superfluous apostrophes are running rampant. You see them everywhere you look: grocery store aisles, blog posts, and signs for everything from antiques to extra-value meals. It seems like people no longer know the difference between the plural and the possessive.

If that reads like something from Eats, Shoots & Leaves, I can’t help it; misplaced apostrophes drive me crazy. But at the same time, I realize our language is rapidly evolving as we communicate in new ways, texting and tweeting home our points.

Some things that used to be required are no longer needed, and some that you’ve always been told are grammar rules were never really all that important. With that in mind, here are some old-school grammar rules that even the most compliant writer can safely ignore (for the most part).

Two is too much

Some people still insist on putting two spaces after a period; what they don’t realize is that the two-spaces rule was designed to accommodate the clunky spacing of manual typewriters.

Of course, most of us are no longer using typewriters—we’re in word processors like Microsoft Word or Google Docs, and they’re designed to provide ample space after a period. So today that second touch of the space bar is no longer necessary, especially where space is at a premium, such as in tweets or emails. In fact, adding the second space will make your writing look clunky or outdated. That’s why your writers may delight in deleting those extra spaces as part of the editing process.

Trekkies know best

Anyone who grew up with Star Trek knows the mission statement at the beginning of every episode: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” That statement doesn’t jibe with the old split infinitive rule: never separate “to” and a verb. Under this rule, “to boldly go” should be “to go boldly,” which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

However, this grammatical relic comes from a time when people thought that English should follow the structure of Latin, and it’s not necessary to adhere to it today. Even Oxford Dictionaries says there’s no justification for avoiding the split infinitive. Not only can it make your sentence sound clumsy, it can also change the emphasis of what’s being said. So give your writers the freedom to boldly split infinitives like no one has ever split them before.

Presuppositions about prepositions

There’s an oft-cited “rule” that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. You’ll hear it a lot from people who claim to be grammar experts; you might even have learned this in school. As a result, a lot of us have spent our lives writing clunky sentences like “About what are you talking?”

Well, I have some good news. There’s no real basis to the claim that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. There are definitely cases in which it’s the wrong thing to do—you shouldn’t ask “where are you at?” for example, because the “at” is unnecessary. Simply asking “Where are you?” is proper and complete.

But there are plenty of times when the last word of your sentence should be a preposition. In less formal writing and conversation, it’s fine. If it’s part of a common phrase (think something like “All the stress is just too much to put up with”) it’s also fine. In all honesty, the only times it’s really important to avoid ending with a preposition are when you’ve dropped the object of that preposition, or when you’re writing or speaking very formally. In a blog post, write the way people talk. But in a legal document, more care is advised.

But in general, don’t worry too much about sentence-ending prepositions. People will know what you’re talking about.

Friggin’ fragments

Many copywriters love writing sentence fragments. For the sake of art. Or to make a point.

Short sentences can spice up your copy, and varying your sentence structure can help you avoid a steady stream of long, rambling sentences like this one. Still, in technical B2B copywriting, writers often can’t get away with fragments as it might appear jarring to a corporate audience that’s used to a more rigid construction and formal tone.

Make sure you’re writing to your audience, and if you do choose to employ fragments, do it intelligently—don’t overdo it, and only use them when you really want to be forceful or dramatic. If every other sentence is a fragment, readers might think you don’t know what you’re doing. But using them in the right places can really drive home your message.

Take action. Or not

Perhaps you’ve been taught that you should always write in the active voice, where the subject of the sentence performs the action. This works just fine most of the time, but there are certain instances where the passive voice makes sense, such as when the action is more important than the person who’s doing it. So don’t avoid the passive voice altogether; just watch out for dangling modifiers when your voice has been changed.

And ignore this one, too.

Few things get sticklers more upset than sentences that start with a conjunction like “but” or “and.” But you can break this rule in all but the most formal of settings; I’ve broken it eight times so far in this post. Shame on me.

Cut your writers some slack

Well, our stroll through the land of apostrophes and prepositions is coming to an end.

Keep in mind that all writers have their pet peeves when it comes to different aspects of language, and—whether the writer is a rebel or a rule-follower—it’s easy for them to fall back into bad writing habits at times. Especially when the pressure is high and the deadline fast approaching.

So cut your writers some slack, and if you’re up for some humor, check out this post on “The 15 B2B copywriters I don’t want to be.”


Derek Smith

Derek Smith’s skills as a reporter serve him well as a senior writer here at Element Three – and if you need a coach for your soccer team, he’s got you covered. He’s worked as a content strategist as well as a copywriter, so he’s always thinking about the why behind every word and every piece of every campaign.