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Rewriting the Zombies: What’s a Zombie Rule?

Zombie hand reaching out from grave with full moon in background

Don’t split an infinite.

Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Don’t use double negatives.

Your favorite English teacher

Most of us are familiar with the above grammar rules and many more besides. They’re presented to us as hard-and-fast, dyed-in-the-wool rules. Many of them start with don’t and are meant to guide you toward “correct” English.

The problem is that they’re not grammar rules at all. They’re stylistic rules disguised as grammar rules—and not all of them have a good style.

Defining Zombie Rules

In 2005, Arnold Zwicky introduced the term zombie rule to describe a grammar rule that isn’t really a rule. Zombie rules are taught, followed, and passed along as rules we must follow to speak and write correctly.

Like their namesakes, however, these rules are dead and no matter how many times it’s explained that there is no grammatical basis for them, they just keep coming back.

Zombie Creator: Teachers

How do we get such rules? Sometimes well-meaning people, such as our beloved elementary school teachers, pass along a narrow grammar rule or a stylistic guideline as a broad rule and ruthlessly enforce it. Our moldable young minds form around this rule and fix it forever.

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Zombie Creator: Language “Improvers”

Other times, people want to “improve” English and force a rule upon the language. Eighteenth-century grammarians had a big case of “English is rubbish unless it looks like Latin” and created plenty of rules for English. Those rules got repeated, generation after generation, with little thought to the reasoning or source. Then our beloved elementary school teachers picked them up, and, well, you can see where that got us.

The improvements generally limit the way we naturally use English, forcing us into an unnecessary and awkward straitjacket.

Zombie Creator: Writing Stylists

And then you have people who don’t understand the difference between grammar and style. With the former, there is a right and wrong. You would not say I are going, after all.

But in the latter, there is no right or wrong, merely preference. If you choose to never write in the passive voice, that’s allowable, but it isn’t ungrammatical to use the passive voice.

In this new series, I’ll review several zombie rules that you might have been unwittingly taught and arm you to kill those zombies for good. Think of it not so much as getting rid of beloved rules but freeing your writing from unnecessary burdens.

Stay tuned!

A version of this article was originally published on June 10, 2013, at Visual Thesaurus.

11 thoughts on “Rewriting the Zombies: What’s a Zombie Rule?

  1. Former ESL teacher here.

    Be careful not to confuse “zombie rules” with “the version of English used by those in power and you’d better learn how to use that version of English if you want access to power and wealth in this country.” I always explained to my students that I was teaching them the dialect of English (with all its rules) that was usually required in business and academia if they wanted to succeed, but that in personal conversation, it wasn’t necessary to speak or write that way as long as you were able to be understood. I believe it’s a disservice NOT to teach those rules you mentioned above, as long as you let the students know why you’re teaching them.

    1. Zombie rules are not part of standard English; that’s what makes them zombies to begin with. If ELLs followed the zombie rule not to split the infinitive, for example, their speech will sound stilted and awkward, the opposite of what they’re trying to accomplish.

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