When to Break Grammar Rules?

Can you break grammar rules? If so, when can you?
The quick answer is yes. You can break grammar rules when it is effective to do so — as long as the intended effect is achieved. Of course, this means that the results must be intelligible, but when can you break grammar rules?
Good writing is often described as clear, concise, and engaging. While adherence to grammar rules is essential most of the time, there are instances where writers break rules to achieve a specific effect or to better convey the intended message. Academic journals have discussed various reasons for this phenomenon, as well as the limitations of AI (such as ChatGPT) when it comes to replicating these nuances in writing. Here is a summary of why human writers and human editors do a better job with breaking the rules. 

Stylistic Choices

Breaking grammar rules can be a deliberate stylistic choice to create a specific tone or evoke a particular emotion. For example, authors may use sentence fragments or run-on sentences to create urgency, tension, or to mimic the natural flow of human speech (Hillocks Jr., G., & Smith, M.W., 2003). AI systems, being rule-based and data-driven, struggle to make such stylistic decisions when they go against the patterns found in their training data.

Creative Expression

Writers sometimes break grammar rules to emphasize a point or create a unique voice for their characters. This can include the use of unconventional punctuation, colloquial language, or nonstandard syntax (Flower, L., & Hayes, J.R., 1981). AI systems have difficulty understanding the context and motivation behind these creative choices and may not be able to replicate them effectively.

Evolving Language

Language is constantly evolving, and what is considered “correct” today may change over time. For instance, the use of singular “they” has gained acceptance in recent years, despite traditional grammar rules stipulating that “they” should only be used for plural subjects (Baron, D., 2019). Thus, what might be “rule breaking” for some might be commonplace, preferred, or expected to another. AI systems, especially those trained on older data, may not be able to adapt to these changes in real-time or recognize the nuances of evolving language.

Context and Audience

Good writing often takes into account the context and the target audience. Writers may deliberately break grammar rules to appeal to a specific audience, such as using informal language or jargon to create a sense of familiarity or camaraderie (Hyland, K., 2005). For example, spend a short time in Texas, and you’re likely to hear “ya’ll” or “all ya’ll,” even though those terms are not strictly or formally “correct.” AI systems can struggle to identify the target audience and tailor their language to suit the intended readership.
As research shows, good writing sometimes breaks grammar rules for stylistic reasons, creative expression, evolving language, or audience connection. AI systems, while increasingly sophisticated, still face limitations in understanding the nuances and motivations behind these decisions, making it difficult for ChatGPT and others to replicate this aspect of good writing effectively. This is one reason why human proofreading and editing matters can ensure that documents reach their full potential.

Baron, D. (2019). What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She. Liveright.
Flower, L., & Hayes, J. R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication, 32(4), 365-387.
Hillocks Jr., G., & Smith, M. W. (2003). Grammar and Usage. In Handbook of Writing Research (pp. 87-104). Guilford Press.
Hyland, K. (2005). Stance and engagement: A model of interaction in academic discourse. Discourse Studies, 7(2), 173-192.