Why I Break English Lessons Learned in High School

Welcome to Writer Rants–where every Friday a writer just lets loose on whatever the heck is bugging her this week. Enjoy.

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I took Honors English in my high school, which was known to have an excellent English department. The teachers were tough and they hammered lessons home with both a carrot and a stick (metaphorically). We started by learning how to write a single-paragraph essay, then moved on to a five-paragraph essay and, by the end of my senior year, I could write a short research paper with the best of them. However, as a professional writer I have learned that not all of the rules I learned in high school are set in stone. In fact, I break them constantly.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
—Elmore Leonard

1. Never use first person

To start out, I will say that when Mrs. Barth taught this lesson in high school (yes, I remember her well), she was teaching it to a bunch of stubborn teenagers who were just learning to write. Since teens are always thinking about themselves as they wallow through puberty, it makes sense to keep them from using first person. High school English teaches us how to write expository essays, supporting hypotheses with facts and coming to a conclusion. However, writing a press release or a blog post for marketing purposes is a horse of a different color.

When discussing a personal issue, opinion or story, using first person relays that notion to the reader. While overuse of “I” and “me” in blogging becomes tiresome, not using it at all is cold and distant.

2. Never use second person

Using third person all of the time as taught in high school is standoffish. For marketing, blogging, and social media posts, the point is to connect with your prospect or customer and communicate. Since the purpose is to engage readers and start a conversation, “you” is the best word choice. I think even Mrs. Barth would approve in this instance.

3. Never start a sentence with but or and

“…But and And are absolutely valid ways to begin a sentence. Not only valid ways, but excellent ways.” —Writing with Style, John R. Trimble, p. 85

“But” and “and” are two words that help your informal writing move along. These little words connect one thought to another so unless you are writing a term paper or formal essay, they are often the best word choices. More formal replacements are “furthermore” and “however,” although you may lose your reader by the time they get to the end of those long words.

4. Never end a sentence with a preposition

“This is the kind of impertinence up with which I shall not put.” –Winston Churchill

While Mrs. Barth taught that ending a sentence with a preposition was a no-no, truthfully, it’s much more natural to say the above sentence as “This is the kind of impertinence I will not put up with.” This was Churchill’s point. When writing content, we generally want to use language in the way that people speak it, creating a natural idiomatic use of the words.

5. Never write a paragraph that’s only one sentence long

Ha, this is a rule I break constantly.

One of the easiest ways of making a point is to separate a single sentence from the rest. When text is the tool, a one-sentence paragraph is better way to emphasize then an exclamation point or capitalization, both of which look like you are shouting at the reader.

Therefore, as you read my writing, you will find that, while I still respect Mrs. Barth and the rules she taught me, I don’t always follow them religiously like I did in high school. Hopefully, I will still get a good grade.

Paula A can usually be found in her favorite chair with her feet propped up on an ottoman quietly typing on her laptop and sipping iced coffee while chaos reigns around her.


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