6 Obscure Grammar Rules You Probably Didn’t Know Existed

English is a weird patchwork of a language. It feels kind of stitched together even to native speakers. How often have you written something and had to say it out loud to make sure it was grammatically correct? Probably a lot. It happens to me several times a day.


Everybody knows about the Oxford comma and why it’s important and that forgetting it allegedly pisses off that one friend of yours. Everybody knows about there, their, and they’re. Some people know about everyday versus every day.


But there’s a whole sublevel of English grammar, just below the surface, that we rarely talk about but weirdly, innately know. Here are some of the most obscure grammar rules for your edification.


1. Adjective order


This is one of those rules that we never ever break, but also never ever think about. When you’re trying to describe something, there’s a specific order in which your adjectives have to go. In fact, there are basically eight levels of adjective placement. Here’s the order:


  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Age
  4. Shape
  5. Color
  6. Origin
  7. Material
  8. Purpose


Example: Let’s say you see a little puppy walking down the street. You don’t grab the nearest stranger and say, “Look at that white, cute, little dog!” That would be putting the color before the opinion before the size. You wouldn’t do that. You would, instead, grab the nearest stranger and scream in their face “LOOK AT THAT CUTE, LITTLE, WHITE DOG. LOOK AT IT, STRANGER. I DON’T KNOW YOU BUT I KNOW YOU SEE THAT CUTE, LITTLE, WHITE DOG.” Opinion, size, and color.




2. Compound subjects behave weirdly when separated by or and nor


When you’re talking about a few people at the same time, it can get confusing fast. Sometimes it’s not so bad, as in: “Joe and Vanessa are going to the store.” The verb (are) agrees with the compound subject (Joe and Vanessa). Joe and Vanessa is a plural compound subject, so the verb is plural as well.


But throw an or or nor at the compound subject and things get weird. “Joe or Vanessa are going to the store.” Say that out loud and tell me it sounds right. It doesn’t. It’s because when a compound subject is separated by an, or, or nor, the verb will agree with the most recent noun. In this case, it should read, “Joe or Vanessa is going to the store.”


If the most recent noun is plural, though… “Joe or his friends are going to the store.” Oh, English.


3. Em-dashes, en-dashes, and hyphens are NOT interchangeable


Em-dash: —


En-dash: –


Hyphen: –


They look different because they are different. Here’s how they’re different. Em-dashes (the longest of the lines) are used as, essentially, heightened parentheses. If you want to insert a side thought into your sentence, em-dashes are what you’re looking for.


En-dashes are used to separate values. For example, I can eat between 8–10 donuts before I get sick.


Hyphens, as you can probably guess, are reserved for compound words. Now, you’re next-level smart!




4. The articles “a” and an don’t work the way you think they do


Most of us were taught that you use “a” before words that start with consonants and an before words that start with vowels. That actually isn’t the rule. The real rule is you use “a” before words that start with consonants and an before words that start with vowel sounds. Not vowels, but vowel sounds.


Example: “I need an hour of mental rest.” You wouldn’t say “a hour” even though hour begins with a consonant. You might upset your second grade teacher, but, hey, they almost definitely won’t find you at this point.


5. You can end sentences with prepositions


You just can. That isn’t a real rule. It was a real rule for Latin, apparently. But we don’t speak Latin. We speak English.


6. You can begin sentences with conjunctions


We’ve all been taught forever that you can’t begin sentences with conjunctions. Lucky for you, dramatic e-mailer, there’s nothing ungrammatical about starting a sentence with and or but!


The idea seems to have its roots in the idea that coordinating conjunctions (and, but) connect two equally important parts of a sentence. Example: “The sky is blue and the grass is green.” There’s nothing grammatically incorrect if you chose to write, “The sky is blue. And the grass is green.” Arguably, it’s a sloppy attempt at creating drama. But it’s not wrong.


Oh, and starting a sentence with “because” is also fine.




Feature Image Via Mountain Heights Academy