Five Grammar Myths Exploded

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.)

  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency in Indianapolis, IN. He co-authored three social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (2nd ed., 2012; Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


    1. @Rose, that’s awesome. Enjoy it. If she gives you any grief, send her here, and I’ll answer her questions. But I’ll do it with a little mental victory dance.

    2. I can’t wait to tell my grammatically rigid older sister that this is a historic day because I am RIGHT!

    3. Jake La Jeunesse says:

      I like this. It acknowledges that language is not a system contrived by man which must obey the rules we have crafted for it. Instead, it’s a thing of nature. A science, even. It’s subject to evolution of it’s own. Just as we can’t impose restrictions on the laws of physics, language is something that should be studied and observed, but left to follow it’s own course.

    4. Ooh, @Dave, you just gave me item number one for my followup. Maybe I’ll do one on punctuation.

    5. Everything mentioned above gets on my craw, but I’m especially piqued in anger when people vending circular Italian delicacies tout them as pizza’s…
      .-= Dave Thackeray´s last blog ..Time to tell some stories… =-.

    6. @elizabethonline, I liked the story and your reasoning. I’ve recommitted to alright after I saw the post from Gabe Doyle that said it was okay to do. I had stopped using it for several months, and always felt empty inside.

    7. elizabethonline says:

      In the 8th grade, many many moons ago, our teacher wrote “alright” on the board, posted next to it the intentionally laughable “alwrong,” and demanded that we use neither. It’s the only grammar rule that I’ve blown off whole-heartedly since minute one, and now I feel so vindicated!
      .-= elizabethonline´s last blog ..Vampire Vocab =-.

    8. When Kyle Lacy, who is an admitted horrible grammarian, RTs your post about grammar, it was impossible for me to miss. Love it. Love the way you think. Agree with you wholeheartedly. Rock on!
      .-= Shelly Kramer´s last blog ..Co-Founder Shelly Kramer of V3 Honored as a Top Ten Twitter Influencer =-.

    9. Good post! I do all these things myself, as a professional writer and editor, so it’s good to know that I’m not breaking the “new rules” of my profession! I think our writing in general has evolved from the traditional formal structure to a more conversational tone, much like copywriting. Only in academia, which seems to be out of touch with the real world on many fronts, are the old rules still mandated.

    10. I am going to have to print this off and read it 50 million times. Good post.

      And I am going to share… :-)
      .-= Kyle Lacy´s last blog ..130 Million Are Being Influenced Online =-.

    11. I laughed at the “an historic” example. I was raised in England, and the only people there who talk like that are people who are trying to impress others.

      It has been an honor to write this :)

    12. @Jennifer

      I use conjunctions at the start of sentences, because rhythmically, the thoughts are joined, even if the sentences are not.

      I often write the way I talk, and I write for our “inner ear” that we all have. That is, when I read something, I actually “hear” the writer’s voice in my head. (Insert your own “hearing voices” joke here.) I hear it even more in my own voice when I’m the one doing the writing.

      When I speak, I do start sentences with And, as long as it continues from a previous thought. By doing this, the sentences sounds like it’s part of the same sentence, even though on paper, it isn’t.

      For me, the use supersedes the function if it sounds good. If I just do it for the sake of doing it, or looking cool, then it seems forced.

    13. Erik, from one wordsmith to another, thank you for your humorous, yet on-target, discussion! I often explain to my students that some of the grammar “rules” they were taught are, in actuality, policies, and I give them permission to break these “rules”–as long as they do so purposefully.
      .-= englishprof´s last blog ..My Name is Kris, and I Am a Biblioholic =-.

    14. Jennifer Hunt says:

      I’m with you on all but the last: conjunctions are for joining things, so if you start a sentence with a conjunction, what are you joining it to? Grammar is just as much a descriptive study as it is prescriptive, and much of what we learn has its context. Writers “break the rules” all the time in informal writing and dialogue because the way we speak and the way we write are two very different matters. However, expert grammarians walk a fine line between understanding how language is used and how language functions. Sometimes use supersedes function; sometimes function trumps use. In the case of an initial coordinating conjunction, I think function trumps use. There is no logical or stylistic reason for it.


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