Instructional designers do a great deal of writing—from communicating with SMEs to crafting instructional content and eLearning scenarios. As a former English teacher, I’d like to clear up some outdated or incorrect grammar rules that instructional designers might need to unlearn to achieve a conversational tone, which is important for learning.
I belong to an online group for women who love to read. At least once a week, someone posts a photo of a book with an error that some poor overworked editor failed to catch. Sometimes, the online grammar police complain about an “error” that isn’t actually wrong at all. For example, someone in my book group (we’ll call her Mary) posted a photo of an eBook similar to the one below, saying she was taught, “you’re never supposed to say ‘_____ and me.’”
Excerpt from Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult
That’s the lesson Mary remembers, but it’s probably not the lesson she was taught. In fact, many of us have these half-learned lessons in our heads because—let’s face it—the human brain is lazy. Or, if you prefer, it’s efficient, always looking for the simplest way to remember information. Unfortunately, that means it often generalizes complex details such as grammatical rules.
In this post, I’ll review six grammar lessons you might need to unlearn:
- Stop using “me.”
- Never end a sentence with a preposition.
- Only capitalize long words in a title.
- Don’t use “they” as a singular pronoun.
- Never use fragments.
- Never begin a sentence with “and” or “but.”
Lesson #1 to Unlearn: Stop Using "Me"
Let’s start with the grammar lesson that confused my fellow book groupie, Mary. As children, many of us received verbal (or actual) hand slaps for saying things like, “Me and Billy want to go play.” We were corrected with “Billy and I” so many times that somewhere along the line, our lazy brains formed the rule that it’s bad to say “me.” Consequently, we end up with incorrect constructions like these:
If you cringed while reading each of these, you might be ready to skip ahead to Lesson #2. On the other hand, if you’ve used sentences like these and are wondering what the fuss is about, keep reading.
The reason many people confuse the words “I,” “me,” and “myself” is that it’s easier to remember a made-up rule like “don’t use me” than it is to remember the actual, somewhat complex, grammatical rules related to subjective, objective, and reflexive pronouns summarized in the table below.
Pronoun Chart: When to Use Me Myself and I
(That last example sentence is a true story.)
Lesson #1 to Remember
There’s nothing wrong with you and me.
Use “me” if:
- it’s the object of the sentence (whom the action is done to or for) AND
- the subject (who is doing the action) is not “I”*
*If the subject is “I,” you’d use “myself.”
Tips for Remembering When to Use Me, Myself, and I
If you have a sentence like, “Meet Dion and ___ at 3:00,” and you’re wondering whether to use “I” or “me,” try removing “Dion and” to see which word makes sense.
To remember when to use “myself,” keep in mind that it’s called a reflexive pronoun because the action reflects back on the subject. Grammar Girl suggests thinking about “looking in a mirror and seeing your reflection.”
Lesson #2 to Unlearn: Never End a Sentence with a Preposition
You may be thinking, “Wait—I know my English teachers drilled this one into my head. Surely it can’t be wrong!” Yes, we were all taught never to end a sentence with a preposition. This is a grammar rule that should have died long ago. Why? Because it really doesn’t apply to the English language. It’s a rule stolen from Latin, which was considered a perfect language even though it had been dead for centuries. Go figure.
If you speak any of the Romance languages—those that come from Latin, like French, Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian—you’ll understand that in these languages, it’s impossible to end a sentence with a preposition. It wouldn’t make any sense. It’s like putting words out of order. In English, it is possible, and sometimes, it’s the best construction. We have two-part verbs that don’t exist in Latin, such as:
- Bring in / out
- Count on
- Grow up
- Knock over / on
- Put up / down
- Round up / down / off
- Take after / on
- Turn off / on
In addition, many prepositions can function as adjectives or adverbs. Basically, the English language is full of gray areas, so this black-and-white rule just doesn’t work, especially if you’re going for a conversational tone.
When I was in college and majoring in English, someone bought me a card that read, “Happy birthday to a friend out with whom I like to hang.” That pretty much sums up the ridiculousness of trying to force a Latin grammar rule onto the English language.
Lesson #2 to Remember
If it makes sense, keep the preposition at the end, but if it’s redundant, take it out!
Tips for Ending Sentences with Prepositions
To determine whether your sentence works with a preposition at the end, try removing it. If your sentence still makes sense, omit the preposition. If not, keep it. I can’t promise some self-appointed grammar cop won’t slash through it during SME reviews, but at least you can explain why it’s correct. Consider these examples:
- Where are you at?
- Did you turn the light off?
- Did you and Lonnie make up?
WHAT TO DO
- Remove “at.” It’s redundant.
- The sentence doesn’t make sense without “off,” so it’s not wrong as it is. However, you can easily rearrange it without the sentence being awkward: Did you turn off the light?
- Keep “up” where it is. Otherwise, we’d wonder what you and Lonnie made. (Is it cookies?)
Lesson #3 to Unlearn: Only Capitalize Long Words in a Title
For instructional designers, writing titles comes with the territory. Do you struggle with knowing which words to capitalize? Many people have taught themselves to capitalize all the long words and leave short words lowercase. This “rule” is another unfortunate victim of our lazy brains. Our teachers probably said, “Capitalize all the major words in a title,” and we translated “major” as “long,” so we don’t capitalize any short words. This gives us problematic titles like these:
- What is Mentoring?
- Everyone was once a Beginner
- How to Intervene when your Mentee is in Crisis
Now, before we talk about why these examples are problematic, let’s clarify one thing: title capitalization is a style choice, which means there are many different ways of doing it correctly, depending on which style guide you use.
Most style guides agree that you should capitalize all the following parts of speech:
- Subordinate conjunctions
In the above examples, “is” and “was” are verbs, “once” and “when” are adverbs, and “your” is an adjective. Therefore, they should all be capitalized. As you might expect with the English language, parts of speech are almost as tricky as the “i before e except after c” rule; for example, “as” can be used as a preposition, conjunction, or adverb. (The previous sentence includes all three!)
Lesson #3 to Remember
Capitalize All the Major Words in a Title
Capitalize the first and last words in a title and all other words EXCEPT:
- Articles (a, an, the)
- Coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, yet, so)
Tips for Title Capitalization
Lesson #4 to Unlearn: Don't Use "They" as a Singular Pronoun
Our English teachers taught us about correct subject-pronoun agreement and that “they” is a plural pronoun. They corrected us when we said things like, “Someone left their book on the desk.”
The singular “they” has been around for hundreds of years, used by Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Emily Dickinson. Furthermore, many style guides now accept the use of singular “they,” including the Associated Press, the APA Style Manual, the MLA Style Manual, and the Chicago Manual of Style.
As NPR put it, “The only problem with singular ‘they’ is that some people still think there is one.” In fact, your SMEs may mark it up as a mistake. Should you push back? In many cases, I think you should.
Lesson #4 to Remember
Most style guides say anyone can use “they” as a singular pronoun in their writing.
Tips for Using "They" as a Singular Pronoun
If your reviewers mark up the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, show them your style guide. You can also point out the benefits of the singular “they”:
- It makes your language more inclusive.
- It makes no assumptions about gender.
- It’s less awkward than “he or she.”
Lesson #5 to Unlearn: Never Use Fragments
In English class, we learned that fragments (incomplete sentences) are bad. That’s true in formal writing. If you’re writing a report or white paper, you should make sure all your sentences have a subject and verb and express a complete thought. However, in creative and informal writing, such as eLearning scenarios, fragments can make things more interesting.
Consider the opening of Susan Cain’s book, Quiet:
The first three “sentences” are fragments that read like stage directions, perfectly setting the scene for the story of Rosa Parks’ quiet act of defiance that sparked a movement. The staccato rhythm pulls the reader into the story, making them want to see the whole picture. This type of style can be very effective for opening a scenario.
Fragments are also useful for creating a “cliffhanger” ending that makes the reader want to continue to the next chapter or section. Consider this example from an eLearning scenario in which a supervisor has been notified of misconduct in her department:
The fragment at the end creates a sense of foreboding. We are left wondering what might happen next time and how Janet stop Paul’s bad behavior.
Lesson #5 to Remember
In informal writing, it’s okay to use fragments. In moderation.
Tips for Using Fragments
Use fragments sparingly to:
- Make a point
- Emphasize information
- Keep the story moving forward
They are often very effective at the beginning of an eLearning scenario or at the end of a section—such as right before a critical thinking question.
Lesson #6 to Unlearn: Never Begin a Sentence with "And" or "But"
If you’re a stickler for this rule, you’ve already been cringing throughout this post, because it’s a rule I break all the time. But that’s okay; it’s a made-up rule that has no basis in the grammar of the English language. It’s probably best to avoid beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction (e.g., and, but, or) in formal writing. For informal writing where you want a conversational tone, knock yourself out.
Consider this example from an eLearning scenario:
See how this construction at the end raises the tension in the story? Contrast it with this more “proper” example:
Both sentences mean the same thing, but the second example loses some “oomph.” It doesn’t flow as well or have the same effect as “Or so she thought.”
(Are you eagle-eyed enough to notice that I broke the rule about not capitalizing “and” in a title? That’s because it’s acting as the object of the preposition—a noun—here. English is weird.)
Lesson #6 to Remember
It’s okay to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. But don’t overdo it.
Tips for Using Coordinating Conjunctions at the Beginning of a Sentence
It may be best to avoid beginning a sentence with “and,” “or,” or “but” for formal writing. For eLearning scenarios, there’s no reason not to begin a sentence with “and,” “or,” or “but” occasionally.
Here’s a nice little graphic you can save to recap what we covered in this post.
Use Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check with caution. It found only one of the mistakes I intentionally included in this post, and it flagged several phrases that are correct and aren’t even controversial. You’re much better off using Grammarly’s writing assistant.
You can learn more about building tension in eLearning scenarios in the post, A Framework for eLearning Scenarios.
I Want to Hear from You!
What would you add to this list? Leave a comment below.
If you like writing-related posts, stay tuned. I’ll be posting about commonly misused words, plain language basics, and other writing tips for instructional designers. Leave a comment to let me know what you’d like to learn more about.