Grammar — in particular, English grammar — has lots of rules, but they’re quite often ones that can — and should — be broken. In fact, a lot of them are more the exceptions than the rules themselves. Here’s a list of some common myths and misconceptions of the English language.

I Before E Except After C

I don’t know where this one started, but it’s more the exception than the rule. Its not even taught in schools anymore, because it’s completely nonsensical. So whilst the younger generations will say ‘lol’ instead of actually laughing out loud, at least they won’t spell weird, wierd.

Always Put an Apostrophe Before S if it’s Possessive

‘It’s’ is short for it is.  ‘Its’ is used for everything else.

When something is plural and possessive, the apostrophe goes after the S. I know it looks stupid, and kind of like you made a typo or the ink on your pen went rogue, but that’s the rule.

It gets further confusing when we think about ‘its’ versus ‘it’s’. This rule is one of my pet hates, and it’s one of the most common things that people find confusing. The rule is this: ‘it’s’ is short for it is.  ‘Its’ is used for everything else. This includes the possessive.

Whilst we’re at it, if someone’s name ends with an S – for instance James – it is correct to put ‘James’s’ or ‘James”. I prefer ‘James’s’, as that’s what our university’s stylesheet tells us to use, and I find it less confusing when putting someone’s name in quotation marks (in the second example above, it just looks like I’ve used double quotation marks).

For surnames that end in S and are plural, put ‘es’ on the end, such as ‘Jameses’.

‘An’ Goes Before Words That Start with H

‘An history’. No.  Just no. This is a pronunciation thing. We pronounce the H, and in English it can be quite a harsh sound, depending on your accent. Saying ‘an history’ is easier if you cut off the H phoneme, but these days, most people don’t. In writing, it just makes you look like a snob, and it’s technically incorrect anyway. It comes from back when we all had to learn French at school, and were actually any good at it: H is treated like a verb in French. It’s not in English.

Hyphens and Dashes are Interchangeable

Computers make us lazy.  On PCs, Microsoft Office autocorrects a hyphen into a dash when you put a space either side. This means that a) you learn nothing, and b) probably didn’t even know that it changed it. Hyphens should be used in between words when they’re linked, such as in a double barrel surname, when using a phrase as an adjective (‘tree-hugging hippy’), or in really old uses of words like ‘tomorrow’ (it used to be to-morrow).

Dashes are used to break up sentences in similar ways to commas and parentheses. They’re bigger than hyphens, and come in two forms: endashes and emdashes. I won’t go into too much detail about that here, but if you want more information, I recommend paying this site a visit.

‘Would Of’

‘Would of’, ‘could of’, and ‘should of’, are not phrases. This is how we pronounce ‘would’ve’, ‘could’ve’ and ‘should’ve’ in some parts of the UK (depending on how you pronounce your Vs), and some people translate this to the ‘of’ thing. It’s not a thing. It’s like ‘fetch’ in Mean Girls.

myths of english grammar

Image courtesy of Giphy.

‘Would’ve’, ‘could’ve’ and ‘should’ve’ are contractions of ‘would have’, ‘could have’ and ‘should have’. If you can stretch your sentence out to say this, then the shortened version has an apostrophe followed by ‘ve’, not the word ‘of’.

‘Off Of’

There’s something about those two words together that feels like nails on a chalkboard to me whenever I read (or write) it. Whenever I see a talented writer use it, it makes me sad.

I don’t know where ‘off of’ originates. It does roll off the tongue fairly nicely, but it doesn’t really make sense.  In most cases when its used, the correct word is either ‘from’, ‘on’ or ‘off’.  For example:

She took a book off of the shelf.

As opposed to:

She took a book from the shelf.

‘Off of’ versus ‘on’:

The Hunger Games is based off of the book by Suzanne Collins.

As opposed to:

The Hunger Games is based on the book by Suzanne Collins.

And finally, ‘off of’ versus ‘off’:

He took something off of the shelf.

As opposed to:

He took something off the shelf.

There’s no loss of meaning in either case, but in the latter, it follows the Twain’s rule of cutting out all unnecessary words to make what you’re saying as simple as possible.

It’s worth nothing that, technically speaking, this isn’t breaking the rules of grammar. It’s just poor grammar, and it looks unprofessional. If you want to sound professional, formal, or like you know what you’re talking about, I’d avoid ‘off of’ at all costs.


Grammar is a confusing thing in any language, but in English we used to teach many things that are about as far from the truth as you can get.  English’s rules of grammar are full of contradictions and are confusing for many English speakers, let alone those that don’t have English as their mother tongue.

The thing about rules — particularly language-related rules, rules of grammar included — is that they’re supposed to be broken. However, you need to make sure that you know the rules (the actual rules, not the nonsense ones above), before you can break them.

For more information, visit one of my favourite books: My Grammar and I. It’s an easily digestible (in most parts), book, that’s humorous in places but still has all the information you need.  Perfect.

What rules of grammar do you find confusing? Are there any nonsense ones I’ve missed from the list? Let me know in the comments below, Facebook or Twitter.