5 Grammar Rules That Make No Effing Sense

I love grammar. I love rules. I like to debate punctuation with total strangers and inanimate objects. But that doesn't mean I agree with all the grammar rules that are out there. I have been teaching a grammar class for 3 years now, and one of the most common complaints I get is that the rules people have learned have no context or are based on antiquated practices. Grammar rules are only as good as the people who use them, and frankly, if a rule is ignored most of the time by most of the people it's meant to direct, then it's not worth following that rule anymore. 

Here are few rules that I think make no effing sense anymore. I am pretty sure there are many more, so feel free to add some ideas to the comments sections, and I'll plan another column with even more rules that make no effing sense.


Possessive Apostrophe with words that end in “s” or similar (like “z” or “ce”)

It’s not that hard—when you want to show that something belongs to someone, you add an apostrophe and an s to the end of the word.

You are pointing out that the white car on the street belongs to Ben. So you say,

That is Ben’s car.

Simple.

BUUUTTT…what if you know two people named Ben and the white car belongs to the one whose last name is Jones? Now what do you say?

  • That is Ben Jones’s car.

Or do you say

  • That is Ben Jones’ car.

When I was in school, I learned that words that ended with an s or s-sound made by another letter or set of letters (like the “z” in Benz or the “ce” in Bryce) didn’t need the extra s after the possessive apostrophe was added. However, when you say it out loud, you pronounce that extra “s” regardless.

So while you might write Jones’ you will pronounce it “Joneses.”

Unless you are talking about the Joneses, i.e. entire Jones family. Then it's just the apostrophe:

  • Are you going to the Joneses' picnic on Saturday?

And, unless you are talking about a plural noun:

  • Those tree strumps over there are my two dogs' favorite chew toys.

Is that not effing confusing or what?! It seems to have something to do with how it's pronounced. Say each of these out loud, and it might make some sense. But really, can we just stick to one form? Seems like overkill to me.

They/Them/Their as a singular pronoun

Pop Quiz: What’s wrong with the following sentences?

  • When someone buys this house, they are going to have a lot of work to do.
  • When I find the asshole who scratched my new Bugatti, I am going to murder them.
  • The lawyer who takes your case is going to have their work cut out for them.

Did you catch it? Don’t feel bad if you don’t really see anything wrong with these sentences—this way of speaking has become so common that some style guides are actually recommending that you write this way!

The problem is that the subject of each of these sentences is singular—someone, the asshole, the lawyer—but all the pronouns that refer to the subjects are plural—they, them, their/them.

This is not grammatically correct. A singular subject should take a singular pronoun, but the problem with the English language is that it doesn’t really have pronouns for PEOPLE that aren’t gendered. In the above examples, the subjects of each sentence do not have a gender. The someone, the asshole, and the lawyer could all be either a he or a she.

In the Stone Age, we would have just used a male pronoun to refer to the gender of an unknown person. Then we evolved to include the possibility of homebuyers, assholes, and lawyers as being equally likely to be male or female, so we adjusted our language to include both possibilities. In more recent memory (like the 90s), our collective desire to be politically correct encouraged us to use both pronouns, like this:

  • When someone buys this house, he or she is going to have a lot of work to do.
  • When I find the asshole who scratched my new Bugatti, I am going to murder him or her.
  • The lawyer who takes your case is going to have his or her work cut out for him or her.

While this may seem fair, I think plenty writers got hung up on how awkward this was to say and write, and so they just started sticking in plural pronouns.

In today’s world, we have a much wider appreciation for the variations in gender identity, so what started as a way to get less words on the page has evolved to a new way to use language to be more inclusive. I have seen examples of groups—even some colleges—encouraging the use of the gender-neutral plural pronoun for singular subjects when either the gender is not known or it’s none-of-your-damned-business.

Even though it’s not technically correct, the use of the plural pronoun is widespread enough that most people don’t even notice it anymore, and with a good reason to use it, I don’t see it going away anytime soon.

Split Infinitives

In case you forgot, the infinitive is the default verb form, also known as a mood. The infinitive verb mood in the English language means that a verb has not been modified to go along with a specific subject (the who/what performing the verb) or tense (when the action was happening—past, present, or future.) The process of changing a verb to match the subject and tense is called conjugation. Verbs that have not been conjugated are in the infinitive mood and have the word “to” attached to the beginning. For example, let’s consider the verb to run:

Conjugated for a first person, past tense:

  • I ran for my life.

Not conjugated for any subject or tense (the subject of this sentence is it, not I.)

It took all my strength to run for my life.

Splitting an infinitive means using the infinitive mood, but writing a sentence in which the to is separated by one or more words from the rest of the verb. For example:

  • It took all my strength to really run for my life.

Here’s a great example from the opening of Star Trek that contains lots of infinitive verbs, both split and un-split (underscoring added by me):

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its 5-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

The grammar gurus might tell you the preceding sentence is wrong, or messy at least, but this “rule” is really a matter of preference that originates with a bunch of wannabes who decided English should more closely mirror Latin-based languages. Back in the olden days (1800s-ish) English speakers thought that French, Spanish, and other Latin-based tongues were languages of the knowitalls, and English grammar should be shifted to better match the grammatical structure of those Latin languages.

In French and Spanish, unconjugated verbs, verbs in the infinitive mood, have a specific form, but unlike English, they make up one word that can’t actually be split. In Spanish, the infinitive verb for to run is correr. The r at the end is how you know it’s in the infinitive form. Unlike English, you can’t possibly write a sentence in Spanish that splits the r from the rest of the verb and have it mean anything.

That’s great and all, but English is not Spanish, and we can do things with English that you can’t do with those other Latin-y languages. Frankly, this is something we should embrace. If someone gets on your case for splitting an infinitive, just turn to them and yell:

“Hey, don’t you know that Latin is DEAD?! And English is ALIIIIVEEEE!!!!!!” Then laugh maniacally and split another infinitive just for spite.

Not Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

This, I think, is another holdover from the wannaspeak-Latin era. Plenty of jokes have been made to show how ridiculous this rule is in practice. The classic joke on this topic is from Winston Churchill who, having had his words rearranged by an overzealous editor, responded with the quip:

This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.

Or something to that effect. No one seems to be able to pin down the exact quote.

I can tell you that in Spanish, it’s not possible to end a sentence with a preposition. Even questions don’t end with prepositions. In Spanish, you HAVE to say:

  • Is that the rock on which she sat?

But in English we CAN say:

  • Is that the rock she sat on?

You can put a preposition at the end of many sentences, and you will be perfectly understood. English is flexible in that respect, and I think making a rule that adds rigidity where none is needed doesn’t make a whole lotta sense. If the sentence is otherwise clear, then why add a belt when you already have suspenders?

The Em dash and En dash

I loves dashes, I really do. I use the em dash all the time—even in text messages (sorry, friends!). If you want to know more about how to use these slim, but useful little lines, do a search with my name, and the term “em dash” and you will find the thousands of words that I have written on the topic.

My issue is not with the usage, but with the names. The en dash is thus named because it takes the space of a lower-case n on the page, and the em dash takes the space of a lower case m. Sure, these descriptions may be useful in distinguishing how they look, but it does nothing to describe how they are used. As with lots of grammatical topics, just knowing what to call the damn thing is half the issue. How can you look up help on a topic if you don’t know what something is called!? And what good is calling something an em dash if that gives you no clue as to how it is used?

Once again, we cling to a rule that was constructed for the reality of a previous era. In the case of the em and en dashes, we must harken back to the days when printing presses were set by hand. My grandfather did this for 40 years when he worked for the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C. He and his contemporaries had to memorize hundreds of guidelines for how to physically set individual letters and punctuation marks. Modern editors also concern themselves with layout and spacing of words and symbols—but they do it with COMPUTERS!!!!

To get an em dash in Microsoft Word, I have to type two short en dashes, and the computer autocorrects it for me into a longer line. This is silliness. Why not just have an em dash key? Also, can we just call them “long” dashes? Or parenthetical dashes? Can we call an en dash a “short” dash or a connecting dash or something more useful?

Year after year, I have explained to students what these dashes are and the long story of how they got their names, but it seems like an unnecessary anecdote when it gives little information about how they are used. It seems like as our communication evolves, so should our names for the communication devices--like punctuation--that we use.


It makes no sense to cling to the same old, outdated terminology when so much about our lives and our communication methods has changed. I mean, people are communicating with emojis now, it’s time to [HAMMER] [ROLODEX] [DEVIL] [POOP]*!!! Amiright?!

*I tried to put in emojis, but neither MS Word nor this website's text editor would let me.

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

lormichelle's picture
lormichelle from Cibolo, Texas is reading A huge slush pile July 30, 2015 - 6:32am

I would love an em dash button. As a formatter, it would make like a lot easier!

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life July 30, 2015 - 6:46am

On a Mac, I press shift/option/en-dash to make an em dash, like so: —.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow July 30, 2015 - 7:26am

Ok, considering how common the em dash is, can we get a button?! 

Yeah, I love Mac, but they have some complicated button combinations, don't they?

Emily Thrash's picture
Emily Thrash July 30, 2015 - 8:00am

I will fight the plural they. Let's invent new words before conflating meanings of existing ones. 

Joe Dillingham's picture
Joe Dillingham from Brooklyn, NY is reading A Feast of Snakes July 30, 2015 - 8:59am

Actually, on a Mac it's like this.

hyphen = - (hyphen key)
en dash = – (opt-hyphen key)
em dash = — (shift-opt-hyphen key)

It actually makes quite a bit of sense, I think. Way more than trying to remember alt-codes on Windows.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life July 30, 2015 - 9:17am

Ah, so that's a hyphen, not an en dash. So many sizes to choose from!

Alice Pow's picture
Alice Pow from Chicago area is reading The Heroes of Olympus series August 7, 2015 - 10:04am

Not to mention that they/them/their is inclusive to people who identify with non-binary genders. Some people are they.