5 Phony Rules of Writing

There's a simple test that usually exposes a phony rule of grammar: If it makes your English stilted and unnatural, it's probably a fraud.
(Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman, "Write and Wrong." Smithsonian, February 2013)

Whether we're experienced writers or just beginners, we all follow certain rules. Not all rules of writing, however, are equally valid or useful.

Before applying the principles of effective writing, we need to find out which rules are worth taking seriously and which ones aren't really rules at all. Here we'll look at five phony rules of writing. Behind each one lies a reasonably good idea, but there are also good reasons why these so-called rules should sometimes be broken.

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Never Use the First Person Pronoun ("I" or "We") in an Essay

phony rules of writing
(Dimitri Otis/Getty Images)

Our choice of a personal pronoun should depend on what we're writing about and our reason for writing. In an essay based on personal experience, for example, the I point of view is not only natural but practically unavoidable. (Substituting "one" and "oneself" for "I" and "myself" usually leads to awkward writing.)

On the other hand, critical essays, term papers, and lab reports are commonly presented from the third-person point of view (he, she, it, they) because the subject of the paper, not the writer, should be the focus of attention. 

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An Essay Must Contain Five Paragraphs

Although most essays contain a beginning, a middle, and an end (also called the introduction, the body, and the conclusion), there's no official limit on the number of paragraphs that should appear in an essay.

Many instructors use the five-paragraph model to introduce students to the basic structure of an essay. Likewise, some standardized essay exams appear to encourage the simple five-paragraph theme. But you should feel free to move beyond the basics (and beyond five paragraphs), especially when dealing with complex subjects. 

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A Paragraph Must Contain Between Three and Five Sentences

Just as there's no limit to the number of paragraphs that may appear in an essay, no rule exists regarding the number of sentences that make up a paragraph. If you check out the works by professional writers in our collection of Classic Essays, you'll find paragraphs as short as a single word and as long as two or three pages.

Instructors often encourage beginning writers to build paragraphs with at least three to five sentences. The purpose of this advice is to help students understand that most body paragraphs need to be developed with specific details that prove or support the main idea of a paragraph.

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Never Begin a Sentence With "And" or "But"

It's true that most often the conjunctions "and" and "but" are used to join words, phrases, and clauses within a sentence. But on occasion these simple transitions can be used effectively to show that a fresh sentence is building on a previous thought ("And") or shifting to a contrary point of view ("But").

Because "and" and "but" are so easy to use (and to overwork) at the beginning of a sentence, instructors often discourage students from using them there at all. But you know better. 

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Never Repeat a Word or a Phrase in the Same Sentence or Paragraph

A sound rule of writing is to avoid needless repetition. No good comes from boring our readers. On occasion, however, repetition of a key word or phrase can be an effective strategy for focusing the reader's attention on a main idea. And it's certainly better to repeat a word than to indulge in elegant variation.

Cohesive writing flows smoothly from one sentence to the next, and repeating a key word or phrase can sometimes help us achieve coherence.