These Copy “Sins” Aren’t Sins at All

Moses with tablets

The Ten Commandments say nothing about prepositions, conjunctions, contractions, infinitives, or capitalization.

Not long ago, I wrote about five common copy errors (and how to avoid them). But today I want to tell you about some kinds of writing that have a reputation for being wrong, but that are actually perfectly fine. Even if writing isn’t part of your official job description, I’m sure you want your work to be error-free, so read on and learn!

  • It’s OK to begin a sentence with a conjunction. Honestly—starting a sentence with words like “and,” “but,” “so,” and “because” is not a problem, regardless of what your scary seventh-grade teacher told you. It’s acceptable. And it’s fun. (See what I did there?)
  • It’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition. As a reminder, prepositions are words like over, under, up, with, and through. Here’s the amusing but apocryphal quote attributed to Winston Churchill on the subject: “This is the type of nonsense up with which I will not put.” In other words, of course it’s preferable to say, “This is the type of nonsense I won’t put up with.” If an end-of-sentence preposition feels natural, then go for it. For example: What’s all the noise about? Or: You’re the Tinder match I’ve been hoping for. Or: Class is over—wake up!
  • Contractions are kosher. I’ve had clients who, given the chance, would take issue with the contractions I’m using in this very bullet point. But truly, those people need to loosen up. A contraction never hurt anyone. (Not this kind of contraction, anyway.)
    Raccoon

    “I never lunged at anyone,” insists the raccoon.

  • “Me” is not a dirty word. Back when we were adorable children, we would excitedly announce something like, “Me and Danny were playing catch and…” Whereupon our mothers would cut us off and correct us with, “Danny and *I* were playing catch.” This sort of admonishment happened so often that we began to believe that the “and I” construction is the only way to speak. Not so! When it’s the subject of the sentence (doing the action), the word you want is “I.” My grandmother and I compete in parkour. My landlord and I have contemplated an arson collaboration. But when you are the object of the action, the word you want is always “me.” The rabid raccoon lunged at my escort and me. Just try the sentence without the other object (my escort), and you’ll know it’s right. You’d never say, “The rabid raccoon lunged at I.”
  • Yes, you can flagrantly split an infinitive. (I just did it!) The infinitive form of a verb is the basic one that begins with “to.” To alphabetize, to bamboozle, to yodel, etc. Sometimes, you want to stick an adverb in the middle of that infinitive. I need to politely insist that you stop writing that parking ticket. She decided to casually check his text messages. Go on—do it. If anyone tells you that you can’t, remind them about how Star Trek immortalized our desire “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
  • Words can remain lowercased even if they *feel* important. It’s common for people to capitalize anything they think deserves respect. But the reality is you can write about your mother, your doctor, and even the handsomely paid director of your esteemed marketing department without capitalizing anything but the first word of the sentence. Resources like The Chicago Manual of Style can help clarify the rules, but generally, people capitalize way more words than they ought to.

Whether you find yourself with writing or reviewing responsibilities, or you simply like to ensure the text you’re working with is correct, I hope this information will give you some clarity and comfort.

  • Willo Oswald says:

    I was prepared to disagree with at least some of your rule-breaking advice but instead find myself 100% in tune. It is entertainingly written too.
    –Willo Oswald
    P.O.E.M member
    (“Professional Organization of English Majors”)

  • K Klein says:

    Fun article, to be sure; but I’m not so sure that “up” in “wake up!” is a preposition . . . . in this case, I think it’s an adverb . . . whatcha think?

    Karen,
    ELGFH
    English Language Grammerderer For Hire

    • Huh! Interesting to contemplate. Are you waking upwards into the realm of consciousness? Is it taking a cue from, “Get up (and out of bed)”? I may need to do some rooting around in the OED. In any event, my point is that there’s nothing wrong with ending a sentence with that “up.” (Thanks for the comment!)

  • K Sun says:

    My mom would ALWAYS drop the old “You mean Danny and I…” bit on me at every available opportunity. Eventually I discovered my awesome comeback, “No mom, you weren’t there!” After awhile, she gave up on correcting my grammar.

  • Deb says:

    Love the lesson. Thanks!

  • Jay says:

    Loved the article. My pet peeve is excessive capitalization. For some strange reason, lawyers in India (where I live) use capitalization as though they were being paid per upper case letter. Here’s an absurd example taken from an actual legal agreement: “The Ppplication was Accepted and Approved by the Society and accordingly, the said Share Certificate Number109 was transferred by the Society to the joint Names of Mrs. XYZ and Mr. ABC.” Horrendous!

  • >