5.7 Breaking Rules (With a Purpose)

Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Natalie Boldt; and Nancy Ami

Students often come to university having learned a number of rules about academic writing (or maybe about “writing” in general). Some of the ones we hear students repeat most frequently are the following:

  • Never use “I” in academic writing.
  • Never start a sentence with “because.”
  • Paragraphs must have at least three sentences.
  • Sentence fragments are wrong.
  • Don’t use slang or colloquial language in an essay. Be formal.

Yet, students who pay attention to the texts they are assigned to read for their classes readily notice that professional writers and academic writers violate these so-called “rules” in work that is published and highly respected. A famous scholar who writes about Shakespeare started a book with the sentence “I began with the desire to speak with the dead.”[1] An important linguist has titled a book about online language Because Internet.[2] Journalists writing for The New Yorker produce paragraphs as short as one sentence long. Advertisers and politicians make frequent, effective use of sentence fragments: “Real change”; “One nation, one flag, one leader”; “A Canada that works.” And one of the most important articles published on English renaissance drama features as part of its title the colloquial phrase “Nobody’s perfect” (Stephen Orgel).[3]

Let’s use as an example an academic text that breaks a number of commonly taught rules: Andrea Riley-Mukavetz’s article “Developing a Relational Scholarly Practice: Snakes, Dreams, and Grandmothers,”[4] which was published in one of the most important academic journals in the field of writing studies, College Composition and Communication. The first sentence of Riley-Mukavetz’s piece is “I come to you with a good heart.” The author then writes a paragraph about her experiences of ophidiophobia (the technical term for a fear of snakes)—but she does so through vivid descriptions of moments from her childhood. Only a bit later in her essay does she make explicit how this material connects to the goals of the article:

These stories are snake stories and are used to theorize a relational scholarly practice that draws from the decolonial option in cultural and Indigenous rhetorics. By reflecting on the complicated and somewhat obsessive relationship to snakes, I articulate a relationship to land-based practices and land-based methodologies in my writing. It is easy to write joyfully about the practices that are easy and uncomplicated (are there practices that are easy and uncomplicated?), but what about the practices that scare us, challenge us, leave us with few answers or unarticulated meanings? Like my relationship with snakes, I am, in fact, somewhat obsessed with the concept of relationality—a core practice and worldview that guides and frames my orientation to knowledge making.[5]

This author uses first-person voice (I statements). She includes a number of grammatically simple sentences (as when she describes that in response to seeing a snake, “I retreat indoors”). Some of her phrasing is colloquial—the phrase in parentheses that interrupts one of the sentences above sounds like speech, doesn’t it? And at times she uses some slangy terms, for example, sharing that this article emerged from the “B-sides” of her PhD thesis. And, most importantly, she links her argument to stories, telling about her personal experiences including details about her childhood, her family members, and her dreams in lucid (and not at all formal-sounding) sentences. None of this rule-breaking makes Riley-Mukavetz’s article seem un-academic; indeed, her ability to shift between very thoughtful analysis of complex and technical concepts (like “the subfield of cultural rhetorics” and “relational scholarly practice”) and vivid personal narratives—as well as between long, complex sentences and short, punchy ones—results in an effective, memorable, and powerful scholarly argument.

When a writer violates rules for no apparent reason, we may say that what we’re seeing is an error. But academic writers can make strategic choices to break what are seen as the rules of academic writing to create interesting effects—to get readers’ attention or to get an audience to think about a complex topic from a new perspective or even to be playful.

In your own writing, think about the results you might get if you choose to break a rule. Will you lose credibility if you use an obscenity in the first sentence of your essay, or will that deliberate inclusion of an unexpected and shocking word more strongly communicate your idea? (Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt could have titled his book length study Miscommunication and Misrepresentation in the Modern World, but instead he called it On Bullshit.) Is writing a sentence or two in an English essay in another language a sign that you don’t know how to write, or might it help readers see that you have authority to speak about a topic closely linked to people who speak that language. (Rhetorician Victor Villanueva includes passages of poetry and of Spanish in an English-langauge article about scholarly writing to explore how a writer’s experience of their skin colour and racial identity affects their relationship to academic discourse.[6]) Sometimes when you are working on a piece of academic writing, you will want to follow the “rules” and play it safe—but try to keep in mind that writers create interesting results when they thoughtfully go beyond what is expected.

  1. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulations of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkley: University of California Press, 1988), 1.
  2. Gretchen McCulloch, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language (New York: Riverhead Books).
  3. Stephen Orgel, “Nobody’s Perfect: Or, Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?” South Atlantic Quarterly 88, no. 1 (Winter 1989): 7-29.
  4. Andrea Riley-Mukavetz, “Developing a Relational Scholarly Practice: Snakes, Dreams, and Grandmothers,” College Composition and Communication 71, no. 4 (2020): 545-65, https://library.ncte.org/journals/ccc/issues/v71-4/30723.
  5. Riley-Mukavetz, “Developing a Relational Scholarly Practice,” 546.
  6. Victor Villanueva, "Memoria is a Friend of Ours: On the Discourse of Color," College English 67, no. 1 (2004): 9-19, reprinted in Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader, 3rd edition, NCTE (2011): 567-77.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada Copyright © 2020 by Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Natalie Boldt; and Nancy Ami is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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