What are zombie rules and what do you do about them?

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Zombie rules – great name, isn’t it? What does it mean, though?

Think of your traditional zombie – doesn’t realise it’s dead, and won’t stop coming at you. Arnold Zwicky, a linguist, coined the term in 2005, and later added the notion of bogeyman rules – zombies don’t know they’re dead, but bogeymen were never alive in the first place.

Now think of the grammar ‘rules’ drummed into you at school, or by well-meaning (mostly) but misguided (mostly) purveyors of writing ‘rules’ on the interwebs and elsewhere. Zombie rules often start with never:

  • Never start a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Don’t use adverbs.
  • Never use the passive.
  • Never split an infinitive.
  • Never use a double negative.

Now, for me, the great joy and, indeed, utility of language is its endless flexibility and its ability to convey the tiniest gradations of nuance. Zombie rules tend to put a straitjacket on writing and speech, thereby limiting both its endless flexibility and its ability to convey those tiniest gradations of nuance.

The notion of ‘rules’ – especially the zombie rules – cuts across ideas such as artistry, innovation, appropriateness, the author’s voice, prioritising rigid adherence to nonsensical (either fictitious in the first place, or simply now outmoded) strictures about how one should write and speak if one is to be fit to appear in public… wow. Let’s not fall for this!

I’m not advocating writing gobbledegook that no one can understand – far from it. I’m advocating natural, flexible language that is deft, clear and apt, and therefore a pleasure to read.

Unfortunately for English, it has been through several spasms of not being thought of as a ‘proper’ language – overridden by Norman French and by classicists who too often thought that any real language would follow Latin rules. Why on earth should it? It’s not Latin! It’s a Germanic language! It’s not German, though. It’s English. It exists on its own terms.

Those who rather like the zombie rules fall into various camps – the peeverein who know less than they think about how language works (see, for example, my articles Your new year’s resolution: no peeving and How to edit without peeving).

Or they might be people who prefer the authority of what a schoolteacher told them in 1957, or any other year, compared to what their eyes, ears and very often their own speech and writing, tell them is used now (and was used in 1957, come to that). Why is that? Too scared of making a mistake, so they cling to the authority of What They Were Taught, rather than going with the flow of the evolution of their language? Possibly.

Let’s take a look at four of the most common zombie rules still roaming the land.

Never split an infinitive

Whyever not? Because in Latin, the infinitive is one word. Therefore if you can’t split it in Latin, you shouldn’t split it in English. Well, that’s barking mad.

We have two kinds of infinitive – the ‘to-infinitive’, such as ‘to go’, and the bare infinitive such as ‘go’. You can already see you’d not even contemplate splitting a bare infinitive. That’s as impossible in English as it is in Latin. We don’t need a rule to tell us not to do that.

But the ‘to-infinitive’? Yep, there’s space between ‘to’ and ‘go’ to bung in something extra – an adverb, maybe? ‘To boldly go’? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) That pattern of words is etched in our minds after decades of Star Trek but even so, ‘Boldly to go’ sounds stiff, and ‘to go boldly’ sounds too loose, to me. ‘To boldly go’ is a good way to go. No twitching and censure necessary.

Sometimes ‘splitting’ it sounds all kinds of wrong, sometimes all kinds of right. So my rule is write down what makes sense and conveys what you mean.

Incidentally, some grammarians deny the ‘to-infinitive’ and say it’s actually a participle plus an infinitive. So, as with the bare infinitive, there’s nothing to split. As you were.

Never start a sentence with a conjunction

And why not? Because some people don’t like it and think they’re in charge of what you’re allowed to say and write without being thought ignorant! And what’s more, it’s complete nonsense – often, but not always. It depends on the formality of what you’re writing. And another reason to use it is because it can add some emphasis. Don’t you find yourself stressing the ‘and’ when you see ‘And …’ kicking off a sentence? But as you’ve just experienced, it does get rather tiring if you keep on doing it. Perhaps it’s time to give you a break – but it’s a great trick to have in your range of expression. No basis in grammar, by the way.

Strange but true, however, is that I have trouble with sentences that start with ‘although’ when the other half of the thought is missing, yet I’m seeing that more and more in published text, so maybe it’s just me.

‘Although she lambasted zombie rules, she sometimes has to abide by them.’

That kind of construction is fine – when I could just have easily have written: ‘She sometimes has to abide by zombie rules although she’s been known to lambast them.’

But I see that second version of the sentence appears sometimes with a full stop (full point or period, call it what you will) after ‘rules’ and that, to my ear, is just weird. ‘She sometimes has to abide by zombie rules. Although she’s been known to lambast them’. In this example, that ‘although’ doesn’t get the weight behind it that ‘And she’s been known to lambast them’ would have – it feels weak and wobbly and in need of an edit. Depending on the context (as always!) I’d probably change that back into one sentence.

Weird, huh? Language, eh?

Never end a sentence with a preposition

Another one with no basis in English grammar. Maybe in Latin grammar, maybe in the grammars of other languages. Not in English.

So if you’re writing or speaking in English, don’t tie yourself up in knots by starting out trying to sound formal but then bung the preposition on the end again, because it otherwise just sounds so incomplete to you – trying to sound posh just because you’re speaking or writing for public consumption is never a good plan, although if you are posh, trying to sound working class is an equally bad idea. Accept the differences – altering your language to try to fit in is a perilous enterprise, full of traps and sniggers.

‘This is the house in which we live’ versus ‘This is the house we live in’ is a viable choice. Then there’s ‘This is the house in which we live… in’ which is best avoided.

Incidentally, Paul McCartney’s theme song for the Bond film Live and Let Die comes in for a lot of unjustified stick. This article will straighten things out if you flinch when you hear it. I used to, but then I checked the actual lyrics. It’s not a grammar mistake, it’s an elocution one. In fact, it’s a mondegreen. UK comedian Peter Kay has made a chunk of his career from misheard lyrics. If you’ve not yet encountered this particular joy, you might relish a rummage around YouTube for more clips! You’re welcome.

Never use the passive

Nonsense. Nothing at all wrong with the passive used in the right place, just as there’s nothing wrong with the active, used in the right place.

Active clause: subject before the verb

Passive clause: object before the verb

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples where this zombie rule is way out of line. Let’s start with reporting the results of an experiment:

Active: The research assistant, John Jones, filled the test tube with…

Passive: The test tube was filled with…

Who filled that test tube is utterly irrelevant information, so the passive is the way to go – but if it should happen to be relevant, then you’ll want the active. Perhaps John Jones made a mistake that led to a miraculous discovery – then use the active. You can see that in the majority of such constructions, the passive is appropriate.

In fiction, the passive can help create mystery, of course, when you don’t yet want to reveal the subject:

“Well, sergeant, the victim was shot” reads better than “Well, sergeant, an unknown assailant shot the victim”, doesn’t it? And it reads far, far better than “Well, sergeant, Jane Smith [name of perpetrator we weren’t meant to know for another fifteen chapters] shot the victim”!

If you can’t decide whether you’re looking at an active or a passive tense, then see if you can add ‘by zombies’ – if you can, it’s passive:

The test tube was filled by zombies. There’s the passive.

The victim was shot by zombies. And there, too.

The research assistant filled the test tube by zombies – nope, that doesn’t work, so we have the active.

“Well, sergeant, an unknown assailant shot the victim by zombies” – same here – doesn’t work, so it’s the active.

…And what do you do about them?

This is a perpetually tricky decision for copyeditors. We know zombie rules are there to be ignored, and now you do, too, but what are all those readers and supervisors and peers thinking? That you can’t write? That your editor can’t edit? And so the zombies get another lease of life.

My own approach is to sidestep the zombies whenever I can, depriving them of … well, whatever fuels them. Light? Oxygen? Publicity? Exposure? Misplaced obedience? But for really formal writing, I’m more inclined to keep them if the author has used them because the context allows it. If the author hasn’t used them, and there’s no overwhelming reason to challenge that, then I certainly won’t introduce them.

Bonus emboldening of writers

If you’re writing and are getting puzzled, or even unnerved, by all the gratuitous ‘rules’ flooding the internet, remember that ‘never’ doesn’t mean ‘never’ when it comes to language – and ‘always’ doesn’t mean ‘always’. That’s where these ‘rules’ fall apart.

Even practical things we think of as rules now, to ensure our words make sense to the reader or listener, aren’t immutable. If they were, you’d be able to read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, or The Canterbury Tales, with ease and with no training.

What we have are a set of current conventions. They really are only temporary.

Write – and say – what is appropriate to the context. If the passive makes more sense for what you want to say, use that. Used too much, or in the wrong place, it gets dull. So just use it when it’s appropriate.

If the active doesn’t really work for your purposes, abandon it with confidence for the passive. If the active does what you want, use that.

And you can start your sentences with a conjunction – just consider that doing nothing but that isn’t great fun to read.

Winston Churchill definitely didn’t write ‘This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put’ – but if avoiding a preposition at the end of a sentence is tying you into this kind of knot, untangle yourself and park the preposition where it belongs. If that’s at the end of the sentence, so be it.

Write what feels right for your context – by which I mean your field, your audience and your platform. If your text is being edited, your copyeditor will help you out if you do make slip-ups that you’d rather not be published. But don’t torture yourself. Write clearly and grammatically (using current conventions), of course, and naturally. Your readers will thank you. But don’t let yourself be cornered by make-believe ‘rules’ that should never have seen the light of day.

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