Myths about Grammar

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about writing. Officers who write professional reports learned most of their writing skills in elementary school from teachers who weren’t professional writers or editors. Myths got started that continue to cause endless confusion. Let’s clear up some of them.

(Maybe you’re wondering why I’m claiming to know the real deal on these issues. That’s a fair question! I was a college writing professor for 30 years, I’ve published six books,  and I serve on the editorial board for an academic journal. Plus I worked in a correctional institution and taught report writing in a criminal justice academy. You can trust me–honest!)

1.  “A comma takes the place of and.”

No, it doesn’t. You won’t find this made-up rule in any grammar book. Often, in fact, you need a comma with and. Read up on Comma Rule 2.

What if you have a list of three items–do you use a comma before and? I’m talking about sentences like this one:

I arrested Perkins, read him his Miranda rights, and put him in the back seat of the patrol car.

If you’re a journalist, no. If you’re writing a book, yes. (Kind of a pain, isn’t it?) The rest of the time–your choice. Many writers (including me) have found that the comma makes sentences easier to read, so we always use it in a series.

2.  “Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary.”

Yes, it is–and it always has been. (Look it up!) Ain’t is a word. Admittedly it’s slang, but nevertheless it’s a real word with a long history. If you’re writing down a witness’s exact words, and the witness uses ain’t, go ahead and include it in your report.

3.  “You can’t start a sentence with but” (or and or because).

There’s no such rule, folks. (Go to the library and look for it! It doesn’t exist.) Good writers start sentences with these words all the time. Pull some books off your bookshelf and see for yourself. Check the newspapers and magazines you read regularly. Click here to see some research I’ve done on this.

4.  “Don’t use I or you when you write.”

Nonsense. Old-time report-writing teachers used to warn against “I” and “you” because they were worried about objectivity. What we’ve learned, of course, is that crossing out “I” and writing “this officer” accomplishes…nothing.

Once again, thumb through some books and magazines and see for yourself. You’ll find that good writers use “I” and me” all the time. The prohibition applies only when you’re writing for an academic publication or something else that’s very formal, such as a president’s Inaugural Address.

5.  Use a comma with a person’s name.

Not true. Use the comma only when you write a Comma Rule 3 sentence, like this:

Patricia Gavin, who joined the agency last week, graduated from the academy with high honors. CORRECT

Don’t use a comma in other situations:

Patricia Gavin has dreamed of a career in law enforcement since she was ten. CORRECT

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