Posted by: nancycurteman | February 8, 2014

Writing Craft Rules: Never Say Never

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60293-Royalty-Free-RF-Clipart-Illustration-Of-A-Confused-3d-Blanco-Man-Character-Looking-At-Large-Question-MarksWhen considering many writing craft rules: Never say never. Many rules that govern writing craft are situational not set in stone. Yes, there are some basic grammatical structures that must be adhered to. But there are many rules that vary according to the author’s purpose, content, context, style and genre. Here are a few examples:

 Never use a semicolon. There are times when a semicolon is needed.
• I rang the doorbell; no one answered. Separates two complete clauses.
• The team played in San Jose, California; Buffalo, New York; and Nice, France. Separates items that contain punctuation.

Never split infinitives. Sound and impact may dictate splitting infinitives.
• Star Treks Mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Application of this rule would destroy the impact of the motto: to go boldly where no man has gone before or worse: to go where no man has gone before boldly.
• The teacher offered to personally write a recommendation that the boy could take to the job interview.  This sentence is clear.
If you rewrite the sentence  without a split infinitive it is unclear whether the offer or the writing was personal : The teacher offered personally to write a recommendation that the boy could take to the job interview.

Never end a sentence in a preposition. Sometimes ending a sentence in a preposition is more efficient.
•  As HW Fowler observed: “The power of saying ‘people worth talking to’ instead of ‘people with whom it is worth while to talk’ is not one to be lightly surrendered.”
• On a memo criticizing a document for committing this “error,” Winston Churchill allegedly wrote: “This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

Never use passive voice. Passive construction should be used judiciously. There are certainly appropriate places for the use of it. Case in point: when the subject is less important than the action.
• The child was kidnapped from her bed.
• The earthquake was the worst one in the city’s history.

In considering rules like the ones I’ve listed, the only rule to remember is, Never say never.

More Tips:

Use Editing Tools With Caution
Revising and Rewriting a Novel is no Mystery


  1. Great examples, NC. Every rule has its exceptions.


    • Right, but sometimes people are so fixed on a rule that they have difficulty allowing exceptions.


  2. And let’s not forget “always put the noun first in attribution”: John said, rather than said John.

    Also, keep sentences brief so readers won’t be confused. Of course, well-constructed sentences can run at length without misunderstanding. The first sentence in “The Emerald Light in the Air” in the current issue of The New Yorker Magazine runs for 99 words.


    • Art, Great additions. How about always begin a dialog paragraph with dialog—no introductory comments?


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