I love language, and I’m a stickler for grammar and punctuation. I don’t always know the names of the rules, or how to diagram a sentence, but I know what’s right, and what’s not.
So as a professional wordsmith, and self-confessed know-it-all, I want to explode five common grammar myths I hear rather frequently.
- You can’t end your sentences with a preposition: According to Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette, hosts of at A Way With Words, an NPR radio show for Word Nerds, this is a tired old proscriptiondating back from the 17th century.Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty said it best in her podcast:
A key point, you might say the Quick and Dirty Tip, is that the sentence doesn’t work if you leave off the preposition. You can’t say, “What did you step?” You need to say, “What did you step on?” to make a grammatical sentence.
I can hear some of you gnashing your teeth right now, while you think, “What about saying, ‘On what did you step?’”
But really, have you ever heard anyone talk that way? I’ve read long, contorted arguments from noted grammarians about why it’s OK to end sentences with prepositions when the preposition isn’t extraneous (1), but the driving point still seems to be, “Nobody in their right mind talks this way.” Yes, you could say, “On what did you step?” but not even grammarians think you should.
Or in the famous words of Winston Churchill, “this is utter nonsense, up with which I shall not put.“
- Don’t split infinitives: Patricia O’Connor, author of Woe Is I, says this is a bunch of hooey. She lays the blame at the feet of Henry Alford, a Latinist and Dean of Canterbury in the 1800s, for foisting this crap on us.Alford published a grammar book in 1864, A Plea for the Queen’s English, where he used several Latin rules to create English rules, like the idea that the word “to” is part of an infinitive, and thus should be inseparable. O’Connor’s book is much bigger and more popular, and she says Alford is dead wrong.
Part of the problem is that infinitives in Latin are single words, while they’re two words in English: to go, to run, to lift, to look. Alford figured if they can’t be split in his dead language of choice, they shouldn’t be split in the language everyone else was using.
Look, English isn’t Latin, so we shouldn’t be bound by rules that guys with funny beards tried to impose on us, especially when they had no foundation to begin with. (This same kind of Latin = English is the reason for the “don’t end your sentences with a preposition” myth too.)
- It’s an historic occasion: Use “an” when a word starts with a vowel sound, like “an NBA referee.” Bottom line: does “historic” start with a vowel sound? No. So stop saying “an historic.” The reason some people do it is because the British do it. Why do the British do it? Because in some regions of the country, and with a Cockney accent, they sometimes drop the H sound from words like her, he, or his. (And yet they stick it on words like herbal. Go figure) A dropped H means a word starts with a vowel sound, and hence the “an” in front of it. So people who want to sound like they’re educated in England will do the whole “an historic” thing.
- Alright isn’t all right:Turns out it is, much to my relief. I have been using “alright” for years, and was told recently it was wrong. It was a dark day.However, Gabe Doyle, a 4th year computational psycholinguistics graduate student at UC-San Diego (i.e. he’s smarter than you) and owner of the Motivated Grammar blog, says you can. “Alright is a common, 100-year-old alternate spelling of all right, presumably created on analogy to already and although.” So if a 4th year computational psycholinguist on the Internet says it’s true, that’s good enough for me.
- Don’t start sentences with And, But, or Or: That might have been true once, but not anymore. It’s a modern invention of writing and language, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Patricia O’Connor says we’ve been starting sentences with And and other conjunctions since the 10th century. She says that other than a bunch of high school English teachers driving themselves to hysterics, there’s no proof we can’t do this.
Explosion photo: Veo
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