11 Grammar Rules from the Past That We Should Bring Back

Yes, some grammar rules are antiquated and all but the strictest grammarians will be unfazed when they fall out of use. (We're looking at you, split infinitives.) But there are plenty of other rules that you're likely to see broken nowadays that we wish would see a resurgence!

A 6th grade class at a school in Staten Island, New York City, 1979.Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Grammar time

Even the strictest grammar sticklers can acknowledge that some rules fall out of fashion for a reason. Trying not to end a sentence with a preposition, or start one with a conjunction, can be restrictive and just seems arbitrary. The increasing widespread acceptance of the singular “they,” in addition to being more inclusive, is also just way easier and less clunky to say than “him or her.” But there are plenty of other grammar rules that, nowadays, seem to be broken more often than they’re followed—that actually do help make language clearer when they’re used correctly. Here are some of the forgotten grammar rules that we think could use a comeback. Plus, check out some more grammar rules that have changed in the last decade.

Who vs. whom

Yes, this particular distinction often gets made fun of for being the pinnacle of linguistic purism. Yes, some sentences with “whom” can sound overly fancy. For instance, in today’s day and age, “Who’d you give the present to?” sounds far more natural than “To whom did you give the present?” But there’s no denying that hearing “whom” used correctly causes grammar lovers’ ears to perk up. People tend to assume that, because “whom” is known as an antiquated grammar convention, the rules for using it must be very complicated. But they’re really not! “Who” refers to the subject of a sentence or clause, while “whom” refers to the object.

Take this example: “Reggie, who liked the present, sent me a nice thank-you note.” In this example, “who” is correct because Reggie is performing the action: Hliked the present. But if it were written, “Reggie, to whom I gave the present, wrote me a nice thank-you note,” it should be “whom” because he’s the recipient of the action: The present was given to him. In fact, replacing “who” with “he/she/they” and “whom” with “him/her/them” is a handy way to check if you’re using them right. If used effectively, “who” and “whom” can be very useful—certainly more useful than some of these grammar rules you can safely ignore.

Separating items in a list with semicolons

Yes, semicolons can be confusing. They’re easy to write off as pretentious and unnecessary simply because, in many cases, you can simply use periods instead. We have a whole list of the only ways you should be using a semicolon, but this is just focusing on one specific use. If you’re listing things (or people), and at least one item in the list contains a comma, you should use semicolons, not commas, to separate the items. Yes, all of them, not just the ones (or one) containing the commas. For instance, in the sentence “Mary, Rose, Ethan, Jackie, and Rachel came to my birthday party,” none of the individual “items” contain commas, since they’re just the names of the guests.

But if you wanted to go into more detail, you might end up needing semicolons instead. For instance, consider if you wrote this: “Lots of people came to my birthday party: Mary, Rose, and Ethan, my college friends; Jackie, whom I hadn’t seen in years; and Rachel, my roommate.” Since there are subsegments in each of these list items, the items need semicolons, not commas, between them. Just think how confusing that sentence would be with those semicolons replaced by commas. It’d be virtually impossible to tell who was who!

In a school classroom, all the students but one raise their hands to answer a question, New York, New York, 1948.Rae Russel/Getty Images

Distinctions between two words and one word

“Happy birthday to my boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend/sibling. I love you more and more everyday!” Have you seen lots of captions like this on social media? Did it drive you absolutely crazy?! If not, you are stronger than we are. Used this way, “every day” is two words, not one—and yet, to the dismay of English nerds everywhere, fewer and fewer people seem to use it correctly. (Speaking of, “less” vs. “fewer” is its own separate source of confusion.) And while “every day/everyday” is probably the most common example, there are plenty of other pairs of words that people mistakenly combine into one: “work out,” “pick up,” and “never mind,” to name a few. The confusion is especially prominent when there are, indeed, instances when they are correct as one word. “Everyday” is a word, but sometimes it should be two—and we should bring back the obsolescing distinction! Are you using any of these pairs of words everyone combines into one incorrectly?

How to use an en dash

This poor, forgotten punctuation mark deserves better! To be fair, the length of hyphens and dashes can be very subjective when you’re writing by hand—but there is a horizontal-line punctuation mark bigger than a hyphen (-) and smaller than a dash (—). The lack of a key on the keyboard for it doesn’t help either; you’ll need to use a keyboard shortcut (Alt/Option plus the hyphen key) or copy and paste to make it. And once you’ve made it, what do you use it for? Well, it has a couple of specific uses. Technically, it’s what you’re supposed to use for a range of numbers: “The score of the game was 24–40,” with an en dash, not “24-40” with a hyphen. Similarly, you’d correctly use an en dash if you wrote, “The homework is to read pages 30–45.” It can be thought of as replacing the word “to” or “through.” While a hyphen could probably be substituted for it in instances like that without much confusion, there is another use that we think deserves a comeback.

You use an en dash the way you use a hyphen—if one (or more) of the items that the hyphen is separating contains two or more words. For instance, you’d say “I loved the Hulk-Loki fight in The Avengers,” with a hyphen—but “I loved the Iron Man–Thanos fight in Avengers: Infinity War,” with an en dash, since “Iron Man” is more than one word. Another, less nerdy example: “Your son is showing fifth grade–level reading skills.” The “level” being described is “fifth grade,” not just “grade,” so an en dash is technically correct here. Learn more about exactly when you should be using the forgotten en dash.

Dangling modifiers

This phrase can be enough to make non-grammarians recoil, since it’s got such a technical sound to it. But it’s basically just a fancy way of saying your words aren’t describing what you want them to describe. Consider this sentence: “Sour, sweet, and covered in sugar, I can’t get enough of Sour Patch Kids!” This sentence might seem right at first—until you realize that, the way it’s phrased, you’re saying that you, not Sour Patch Kids, are sour, sweet, and covered in sugar. The “modifier” in this sentence is “sour, sweet, and covered in sugar,” but the subject of the sentence—the noun that it’s modifying—is “I,” not “Sour Patch Kids.” To make the sentence correct, you could say “Sour, sweet, and covered in sugar, Sour Patch Kids are my favorite candy.” Unfortunately, sentences with dangling modifiers can sometimes seem, to exasperated grammarians, to be more common than ones that use them correctly. Read more about how to avoid misplaced modifiers in your writing.

girl doing homework circa 1947Lambert/Getty Images

Restrictive and nonrestrictive commas

“I read Mark Twain’s book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in high school.” This is another sentence that might look correct at first glance—or even at second glance, given how little the broken rule here seems to be followed. The way this sentence is written, with commas around “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” implies that Huck Finn is Mark Twain’s only book. Why? If you surround a phrase or clause with commas, it should mean that removing that clause/phrase does not change the meaning of the sentence. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a restrictive phrase—removing it does change the meaning of the sentence, since Mark Twain wrote more than one book. So this sentence should be “I read Mark Twain’s book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school.”

On the other hand, you would put commas in the sentence “I read Emily Brontë’s book, Wuthering Heights, in high school.” The commas indicate that you could remove the phrase surrounded by commas, “Wuthering Heights,” and the meaning of the sentence would not change. And it wouldn’t—because Wuthering Heights is the only book Emily Brontë wrote. For a less bookish example, you’d write “I brought my cat, Snuffles, to the vet today” if you have only one cat; it would be “I brought my cat Snuffles to the vet today” if Snuffles is one of multiple felines that belong to you. Yes, that second sentence does look a little funkier—probably because of the widespread misuse of this rule—but it is correct. Here are some more comma rules everyone should know.

How to pluralize words ending in S

When it comes to pluralizing—or worse, making possessive—words or proper names that end in S, it seems like all bets are off. But they shouldn’t be! There’s actually a set of rules that is fairly simple, especially when compared with some other English rules. The confusion, of course, is because you normally make words plural (unless they’re irregular weirdos like “child” or “mouse”) by adding an S to the end. But that’s not an option when the word already ends in S.

It’s still pretty simple, though—if the word (or name)  ends in S, add an “-es” to the end. “The walruses lay soaking up the sun.” “The Joneses invited me to their house.” (Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, such as “analysis,” “cactus,” and “species.”) And if it’s possessive? Well, you just follow the same rules you do for plural words that don’t end in S. If the word is singular, add an apostrophe S, and if it’s plural, add just an apostrophe, after the final S. Check out a more detailed description of how to pluralize words ending in S and—Jones, Stevens, and Lucas families—never struggle over how to sign your holiday cards again.

Using apostrophes to make words plural

Apostrophes do not make, and have never made, words plural. But the frequent incorrect use of them might lead you to think that they do. And even if you know that “I got Mom some slipper’s for her birthday!” is incorrect, you might still be confused in some other instances. You wore leg warmers, put your hair up in a huge scrunchie, and danced to Madonna. Did you go to an 80’s-themed party, or an ’80s-themed party? If you chose the second option, you’re correct. As with words like “it’s,” “can’t,” and “shouldn’t,” the apostrophe in this common decade shorthand is taking the place of something. It’s taking the place of the “19,” which comes before “80s,” so that’s where the apostrophe should go. Putting an apostrophe before the S doesn’t make “80s” plural any more than it makes “slippers” plural. (And it doesn’t if you’re talking about a man in his mid-80s—not mid-80’s—either!)

The only time you might use an apostrophe to pluralize something is if it refers to actual letters rather than full words. “There are two i’s in ‘idolize.'” “Good job getting so many A’s in school!” Without the apostrophe, those letters could be read as “is” or as.” Brush up on some more ways you’re using apostrophes wrong.

1980s COLLEGE STUDENTS TEACHER IN CLASSROOM SITTING AT DESKS TEACHER LEANING OVER DESK EXAMINING PAPER OF STUDENTH. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Using quotation marks for emphasis

How did this poor punctuation mark become so egregiously misused?! Quotation marks surround a quotation (shocker), but they have some other uses as well. They’re also used to punctuate titles of some types of works, like songs or TV episodes; to write words when you’re referring to the words, which you’ll see many examples of in this very article; and to suggest alternate or inaccurate meanings for something. (The latter is what you’ll usually see people using the “air quotes” gesture for.) Adding emphasis to something is not one of their uses. Yet you’ll see them used this way—usually on signs, and often in an unintentionally comical manner. “FREE” SAMPLES! a sign might read. No. In addition to being an incorrect use of quotation marks, this use also implies that the word “free” has an alternate meaning—a delightfully ironic reversal of the sign’s intention. The same goes for signs that advertise “FRESH” FOOD! You might say that this is a grammar error that editors find “funny.” Find out which other grammatical errors editors can’t stand.

Punctuation in quotation marks

Aaaand here we have quotation marks causing more grammatical confusion. The gist of the rule is this: Periods and commas should always be inside the quotation marks. So She told me, “Bring your grocery list when you go to the store”. is incorrect, as is “I’m going to the store”, he said. But when the punctuation mark is an exclamation point or question mark, it should be inside the quotation marks only if the quotation is an exclamation or question. For instance, in the sentence She asked me, “Can you go to the store today?” the question mark should be in the quotations because the quote is a question. But in the sentence Can you believe she said, “You have to go to the store today”? it should be outside the quotes, because the full sentence is the question, not what’s in the quotes. If you think you have mastery of all of these rules, give this tricky high school grammar test a try.

Parallelism

Imagine someone asks you to name three of your biggest strengths, and you say, “Patience, optimism, and being good at grammar.” Sadly, at least one of those is false. “Parallelism” essentially means that your parts of speech should match when they need to. In the above example, “patience” and “optimism” are nouns…but then “being good at grammar” is a verb phrase, which throws off the “groove” of the sentence, as it were. But it doesn’t have to be just for lists or series. Consider the sentence “It’s harder to drive in a big city than driving in a rural area.” Even though the verb “drive” is the same, the two uses are still not parallel since they’re in different forms. “To drive” is an infinitive, while “driving” is a present participle, so the sentence still reads funny (and is technically incorrect). Now that you’ve re-familiarized yourself with these forgotten rules, check out some more little grammar rules to follow to sound smarter.

Popular Videos

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.