Grammar Workshop: Fumblerules

Fumblerules show rather than tell students what not to do.  A common example of a fumblerule is the Plan Ahead poster where the d dangles off of the page because someone didn’t!

William Safire was a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, author, and syndicated columnist for the New York Times.  His wonderful sense of humor was on display for thirty years in his weekly column called “On Language” which he wrote for the New York Times Magazine.

In 1979 he wrote a list of grammar rules he called The Fumblerules of Grammar, a “culled, winnowed, beefed up and edited” list of the best fumblerules he received in response to a published request.  The list was later massaged into a book that eventually became How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar.


  • As a fun and quick exercise, have your student rewrite the the fumblerules to illustrate the rule (rather than what the rules says not to do) — a funny and memorable grammar exercise!
  • Have your student make up a few fumblerules of his own.
  • Create a fumblerule poster.


Additional Resources

The Fumblerules of Grammar
33 well-demonstrated rules from William Safire’s NY Times column.

Fumblerules written correctly (some can be corrected in more than one way):

  1. Avoid run-on sentences.  They are hard to read.
  2. Don’t use double negatives.
  3. Use the semicolon properly; always use it where it is appropriate and never where it isn’t.
  4. Reserve the apostrophe for its proper use and omit it when it’s not needed.
  5. Put statements in the positive form.
  6. Verbs have to agree with their subjects.
  7. Do not use sentence fragments.
  8. Proofread carefully to see if you left any words out.
  9. Avoid commas that are not necessary.
  10. If you edit your work, you will find on that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading.
  11. A writer must not shift his point of view.
  12. Avoid dialect.
  13. Do not start a sentence with a conjunction.
  14. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!
  15. Place pronouns as close as possible to their antecedents especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words.
  16. Writers should always hyphenate between syllables and avoid unnecessary hy-
  17. Write all adverbial forms correctly.
  18. Do not use contractions in formal writing.
  19. Write carefully to avoid dangling participles.
  20. Avoid archaic language.
  21. Using a linking verb at the end of a sentence is improper.
  22. Steer clear of incorrect forms of verbs that have sneaked in the language.
  23. Take the bull by the horns and avoid mixed metaphors.
  24. Avoid trendy locutions that sound off.
  25. Never use redundancies.
  26. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with a singular noun in their writing.
  27. Resist hyperbole.
  28. Do  not use clumsy or unnatural alliteration.
  29. Don’t string too many prepositional phrases together.
  30. Always pick the correct idiom.
  31. Avoid overuse of quotation marks.
  32. The adverb follows the verb always.  [An adverb can be either before or after a verb.]
  33. Avoid cliches.

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