Informal English: 10 Grammar Rules That Native Speakers Break All the Time!
“Here’s you a dog.”
If you heard someone say that, you might think that person was not a native English speaker.
However, this kind of phrase is pretty common in the U.S. state of Kentucky.
One amazing part of learning a language is learning how different it is for every culture, place and community.
English is just one language, but how you speak it can depend on your home, age, experiences, education and a number of other factors.
Also, native speakers often don’t follow all the rules of English grammar when they are speaking informally with family or friends.
Some don’t even know what all the rules are, and instead say what sounds natural to them, or what they have grown up hearing.
As an English learner, you need to learn English grammar and the rules that come along with it.
Once you’ve become comfortable with the formal, rule-following type of English, though, you might need to learn how to break those rules.
Why and How to Learn English Grammar Rules
Of course, we’re not saying you should ignore the rules. For an English learner, continuing to improve your grammar is incredibly important. The better you know all the rules, the more you’ll understand which ones are important and which are rarely (if ever!) followed.
There are many places you can learn or check up on grammar rules. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Grammarly: This is an excellent app for your browser. It will check for common spelling and grammar mistakes, and explain why they are mistakes, with details and examples.
- Grammar Girl: This friendly blog explains common mistakes, and often shares some interesting and useful grammar tips.
- Speakspeak: This guide is an excellent resource to have bookmarked so you can check on any rules when you forget them. The grammar rules are organized into categories and in alphabetical order to make it easy to search for whatever you need.
- Grammar Bytes!: Although it’s not as clearly organized, this website uses simple and clear language and has additional resources, like exercises and tips.
- Oxford Dictionaries Grammar: For quick and simple definitions and explanations, the Oxford Dictionaries site has its own list of grammar tips and terms.
As you learn grammar rules, you’ll start to use them without having to think about them. The more rules you learn, the more comfortable you’ll get with speaking English.
Breaking the Rules
Once you know enough grammar rules, you can start to break them!
Of course, there is a time and place for everything. In other words, sometimes it’s better to use all the rules. If you’re in a formal setting, like work, or if you’re speaking to someone you don’t know well, it’s probably better to speak correct English.
On the other hand, if you’re with friends or people your age in an informal location (like a restaurant or a party), it’s okay to break some rules. Just remember, we’re talking about informal English here!
So which rules can you break? It depends on the preferences of the people around you. A preference is when you like one choice more than another. Listen to how others around you speak, and you’ll begin to hear what rules they skip and what rules they follow.
No matter where you are, though, some English grammar rules are almost never followed in informal English speech.
Here are 10 grammar rules you’ll probably never need to worry about in informal situations.
10 Grammar Rules It’s Okay to Break in Informal English
1. Never end a sentence with a preposition
The rule: Never end a sentence with a preposition.
With whom should I study English?
The reality: Prepositions describe relationships between words or phrases, and often deal with location in space or time. Some examples are to, from, under, before and with.
Since prepositions are meant to be connected to other words, the old rule states that you can’t have a preposition all alone at the end of a sentence.
Think about some common sentences you’ve heard, though. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I have no one to study with,” even though that sentence ends with a preposition. Some argue that using a preposition at the end of a sentence is only wrong when that preposition is unnecessary, as in “Where are you at?”
In informal English, though, this rule is often ignored and a preposition is a perfectly fine word to end on (see what I did there?).
Who should I study English with?
2. Never begin a sentence with a conjunction
The rule: Never start a sentence with a conjunction.
“I have to go home, but it’s cold outside.”
The reality: A conjunction is a word that connects parts of a sentence together. Conjunctions include the words and, but, or and because. Since the words are supposed to connect, it makes sense that they shouldn’t be used to start a sentence.
But sometimes using a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence makes the sentence stand out. As this scene from the movie “Finding Forrester” shows, it’s a pretty effective way to make a point.
In informal English, it’s fine to break this rule, and it’s broken often. You can start a sentence with a conjunction to add on to someone else’s sentence, add to a thought or respond to a question.
“I have to go home.”
“But baby, it’s cold outside!”
3. Never split infinitives
The rule: When using the infinitive of a verb, do not separate the word “to” from the verb with any other word.
“…to go boldly where no man has gone before.”
The reality: An infinitive is a two-word form of a verb that uses the word to, as in to write, to play or to read. When you split an infinitive, you put another word, usually an adverb, between the two parts of the verb.
This “rule” only exists in the first place because splitting the infinitive is unnecessary. Why say you’re going to quickly eat when you can just say you’re going to eat quickly?
Sometimes, though, it makes more sense to split that infinitive. Where you place an adverb can change the emphasis (stress) and meaning of the sentence.
For example, if you say, I’m finally going to learn English, that might sound like you’re beginning to learn after a long time of putting it off.
If you say, I’m going to finally learn English, though, it might sound more like you’ve been studying for a while and will soon become fluent.
When choosing whether to break this rule or not, just go with what sounds right. The famous line from “Star Trek” (written below) would just not sound as dramatic if it said to go boldly!
“…to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
4. Avoid the singular “they”
The rule: The word “they” refers to a group of people, so it’s always plural.
“I’ve never met those people but they seem nice.”
The reality: Imagine writing a long blog about a person whose gender you don’t know. When you need to use a pronoun to refer to that person, what would you do? You can say he or she over and over, but that becomes repetitive quickly. You can try to use the person’s name all the time, or say the person, but that doesn’t sound natural.
What people usually do in this case is to use the word they. The pronoun is still used with a plural verb (you would say they are, not they is) but it can be used as a replacement for he or she.
Although this is against the rules (you can’t use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular person), it has become accepted.
“I’ve never met that person, but they seem nice.”
5. Avoid sentence fragments and run-on sentences
The rules: Every sentence must have a subject (noun) and a verb (action). Also, a sentence shouldn’t contain more than one part that can stand on its own (as a complete sentence).
“Would you ever eat a bug?”
“I would never do that!”
“I would try it. It might be delicious.”
The reality: A sentence fragment is a sentence that’s missing something or doesn’t express a complete thought.
A run-on sentence is the opposite—it tries to fit too many thoughts into one sentence.
When you’re writing or speaking formally, it’s extremely important to avoid sentence fragments and run-on sentences!
In informal conversation, though, both fragments and run-on sentences are acceptable. For example, the sentence After I eat is a fragment, but it makes perfect sense if you use it to answer the question Are you coming outside?
Run-on sentences are not as common, but you might use them when you’re excited about something:
“I went on a helicopter ride above the city, it was dark and everything was so beautiful!”
It’s also harder to spot a run-on sentence when you’re speaking out loud. If you heard it spoken, could you tell if the example above was two separate sentences or one run-on?
Honestly, it doesn’t really matter!
“Would you ever eat a bug?”
“I would never!”
“I would, it might be delicious.”
6. Avoid double negatives
The rule: Never use two negative words together to express one thought.
“I can’t get any satisfaction.”
The reality: Using double negatives can get confusing. Saying no is simple, but saying not no complicates things!
When you use two negatives, they turn into a positive. For example, if you say I don’t have nothing to do you’re really saying you do have something to do (not nothing is something, right?).
Here’s where it gets confusing. Native speakers sometimes use double negatives to make something even more negative or just to express the same negative meaning.
Most commonly, the words anything and any are replaced by nothing and no.
So when someone says, I don’t have no work today, they really mean that don’t have work—even though the sentence should mean that they do.
The sentence should say I don’t have any work today. That’s what you would say in a professional setting. However, if you say I don’t have no work today to friends, they will understand you.
Keep in mind, though, that this kind of double negative can sound strange when it’s not coming from a native speaker. It’s good to be able to understand it, but you don’t actually need to use it!
Another kind of double negative is more widely accepted in any kind of speech, and that is when you use two negatives to create a certain meaning that you can’t get from not using any negatives at all.
For example, if you say something is pleasant, you’re saying it was nice. But if you say something was not unpleasant, you might mean that it was okay, or not as terrible as you were expecting.
This form of double negative usually uses the word not followed by the negative version of a noun, like unpleasant or disinterested (not having a personal involvement in an issue or not interested).
Whether or not you use double negatives yourself, it’s good to be able to recognize them and understand what they mean.
“I can’t get no satisfaction.”
7. Treat collective nouns like they are singular
The rule: Collective nouns are always singular.
“None of my friends is here.”
The reality: This is one of those times when a rule hasn’t been used in so long that it actually sounds wrong to follow it! Collective nouns are words that describe a group of people or things, like none, bunch and group.
Even though they describe more than one thing, these words are singular. You can say a bunch or many bunches, but not many bunch.
However, when you use these nouns with verbs, it sounds better to treat them like plural nouns. This goes for informal speech and even more formal speech. It’s correct to say A bunch of my friends was… but it sounds much better to say A bunch of my friends were…
“None of my friends are here.”
8. The “less vs. fewer” rule
The rule: Use fewer for plural items. Use less for items that don’t have a plural or can’t be counted.
“I have fewer cats than my neighbor even though she has less space in her home.”
The reality: Many native speakers don’t know the difference between less and fewer. This rule has been broken in informal speech for so long that it often no longer really matters which word you use.
However, if you’re not sure which word is correct, use the word less. Less air sounds right but fewer air does not.
“I have less cats than my neighbor even though she has less space in her home.”
9. The “that vs. which” rule
The rule: Use that when connecting important information. Use which with unimportant information.
“The cat that looks like a dog lives here.”
“The cat, which looks like a dog, lives here.”
The reality: The words that and which can be used to connect information, and many people use them interchangeably (as if they mean the same thing).
There is a slight difference between the two sentences in the examples above, though. In the first sentence, the fact that the cat looks like a dog is an important bit of information. It might mean that someone was looking for that specific cat.
In the second sentence, the fact that the cat looks like a dog is just an additional bit of information, something that was included because it was interesting, not important.
If you ever don’t know which one to use in informal speech, you can usually just use the word that for either case.
“The cat, that looks like a dog, lives here.”
10. The “I have vs. I’ve got” rule
The rule: This exact grammar rule can vary between British and American English, but this is one idea of how the “rule” should go: I have is present tense. I have got is present perfect, used to speak about something that started in the past but is still going on.
“I’ve got a really bad cold.”
“I have to go now.”
The reality: How often you break this rule depends on where you’re from.
In American English, saying I have is more common than I’ve got. In British English, it’s the opposite. Other than that, there is barely a difference between the two in informal English!
Both of these phrases can actually have more than one meaning: The word have means to possess something (like when you have a job), or to be obligated to do something (like when you have to get up early for work). The word got means you came to have something in the past (like when you finally got that job). All of this might seem to complicate things.
However, the phrase have got can be used as a present tense statement to mean any of those things.
Officially, you could use have got to speak about something that happened in the past but is still happening now. In reality, though, no one really thinks about it that way.
For example, in the first sentence above, you may be saying that you caught a cold a while ago and you still have it. Speaking informally, you can use either have or have got, with little change in meaning.
I have sounds a bit more formal, and I’ve got can be used to emphasize the thing that you have, like when you say I’ve got a big TV. Otherwise, use whichever you prefer!
“I have a really bad cold.”
“I’ve got to go now.”
The more you learn about which grammar rules can be broken, the more you’ll learn how to sound casual and natural using informal English!