Humorous Rules for Writing
("Fumblerules," "Perverse Rules," etc.)

by Donna Richoux, June 18, 2002

Since the 1970s at least, lists of humorous rules for writing have circulated around schools, universities, and offices. The humor depends on each rule contradicting the very advice it gives, such as "Don't use no double negatives."

As Mark Israel's FAQ states, these were written up by William Safire under the name "Fumblerules," although there is at least one earlier published source of a similar list, by science editor George L. Trigg. Below, I give details about both of those sources, and quote the original articles in full.

Note that both Trigg and Safire credit others with having collected or contributed the rules they published. Although they helped in publicizing this catchy form, neither should be considered the originator.

There are many, many variants of these lists on the World Wide Web. Some clearly began with one list or the other and added new ones as people thought of them. Others may have descended from the same "xeroxlore" that preceded both and circulated throughout campuses and offices in the 1970s. You can turn these up by searching on typical phrases like "don't use no double negatives" (which appears in both original articles) and "eschew obfuscation" (which appears in neither).

George L. Trigg "Grammar"

The following is the text of an article in the scientific journal Physics Review Letters, 19 March 1979 (Volume 42, Issue 12, pp. 747-748).


It is said that back in the 1940's, the following message was prominently displayed at the front of the main chemistry lecture hall at a major university:

"The English language is your most versatile scientific instrument. Learn to use it with precision."

In the intervening years, the teaching of proper grammar in the public elementary and high schools fell into disfavor. The inevitable result is that manuscripts submitted to us are often full of grammatical errors, which their authors probably do not even recognize (and often would not care about if they did).

We regard this state of affairs as deplorable, and we want to do something about it. For many years we have tried to correct the grammar of papers that we publish. This is toilsome at best, and sometimes entails rather substantial rephrasing. It would obviously be preferable to have authors use correct grammar in the first place. The problem is how to get them to do it.

One fairly effective way is to provide examples of what not to do; it is particularly helpful if the examples are humorous. We have recently seen several lists of grammatical examples of this type. A few weeks ago we found taped to a colleague's office door the most complete one we have seen. (He tells us it was passed out in a class of Darthmouth - not in English - at the time a term paper was assigned). We reproduce it here in the hope that it will have some effect.

  1. Make sure each pronoun agrees with their antecedent.
  2. Just between you and I, the case of pronoun is important.
  3. Watch out for irregular verbs which have crope into English.
  4. Verbs has to agree in number with their subjects.
  5. Don't use no double negatives.
  6. Being bad grammar, a writer should not use dangling modifiers.
  7. Join clauses good like a conjunction should.
  8. A writer must be not shift your point of view.
  9. About sentence fragments.
  10. Don't use run-on sentences you got to punctuate them.
  11. In letters essays and reports use commas to separate items in series.
  12. Don't use commas, which are not necessary.
  13. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
  14. Its important to use apostrophes right in everybodys writing.
  15. Don't abbrev.
  16. Check to see if you any words out.
  17. In the case of a report, check to see that jargonwise, it's A-OK.
  18. As far as incomplete constructions, they are wrong.
  19. About repetition, the repetition of a word might be real effective repetition - take, for instance the repetition of Abraham Lincoln.
  20. In my opinion, I think that an author when he is writing should definitely not get into the habit of making use of too many unnecessary words that he does not really need in order to put his message across.
  21. Use parallel construction not only to be concise but also clarify.
  22. It behooves us all to avoid archaic expressions.
  23. Mixed metaphors are a pain in the neck and ought to be weeded out.
  24. Consult the dictionery to avoid mispelings.
  25. To ignorantly split an infinitive is a practice to religiously avoid.
  26. Last but not least, lay off cliches.

The above was taken from a reprint at

Publishing info at

William Safire "Fumblerules"

In the same year, William Safire wrote at the end of his "On Language" column in the New York Times, on 7 October 1979:


I am compiling "Ten Perverse Rules of English Grammar." Thanks to Philip Henderson of Lawrence, Kan., I have three. They are: (1) Remember to never split an infinitive. (2) A preposition is something never to end a sentence with. (3) The passive voice should never be used.

Any others along these lines?

He followed this up a month later, on 4 November 1979, with the following "On Language" column:

The Fumblerules of Grammar

Not long ago, I advertised for perverse rules of grammar, along the lines of "Remember to never split an infinitive" and "The passive voice should never be used." The notion of making a mistake while laying down rules ("Thimk," "We Never Make Misteaks") is highly unoriginal, and it turns out that English teachers have been circulating lists of fumblerules for years.

As owner of the world's largest collection, and with thanks to scores of readers, let me pass along a bunch of these never-say-neverisms:

  • Avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read.
  • Don't use no double negatives.
  • Use the semicolon properly, always use it where it is appropriate; and never where it isn't.
  • Reserve the apostrophe for it's proper use and omit it when its not needed.
  • Do not put statements in the negative form.
  • Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
  • No sentence fragments.
  • Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
  • Avoid commas, that are not necessary.
  • If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
  • A writer must not shift your point of view.
  • Eschew dialect, irregardless.
  • And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Don't overuse exclamation marks!!!
  • Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
  • Hyphenate between sy-
    llables and avoid un-necessary hyphens.
  • Write all adverbial forms correct.
  • Don't use contractions in formal writing.
  • Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
  • It is incumbent on us to avoid archaisms.
  • If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
  • Steer clear of incorrect forms of verbs that have snuck in the language.
  • Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixed metaphors.
  • Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
  • Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
  • Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
  • If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, resist hyperbole.
  • Also, avoid awkward or affected alliteration.
  • Don't string too many prepositional phrases together unless you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
  • Always pick on the correct idiom.
  • "Avoid overuse of 'quotation "marks."'"
  • The adverb always follows the verb.
  • Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

We are told that these and possibly more Fumblerules were reprinted in at least one of Safire's books of collected articles. In 1990 he made a separate book, Fumblerules: A Lighthearted Guide to Grammar and Good Usage (not in print, but used copies available.)