Debunking Grammar Myths

This week we're joined by a special guest blogger. Patricia T. O'Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, is the author of the national best-seller Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, as well as other books about language. She is a regular monthly guest on public radio station WNYC in New York. Learn more at her website, grammarphobia.com. Make her feel welcome!

When I think about the rules of grammar I sometimes recall the story—and it's a true one—about a lecture given in the 1950s by an eminent British philosopher of language. He remarked that in some languages two negatives make a positive, but in no language do two positives make a negative. A voice from the back of the room piped up, "Yeah, yeah."

Don't we all sometimes feel like that voice from the back of the room? When some grammatical purist insists, for example, that the subject has to go before the verb, aren't we tempted to reply, "Sez you!"?

English is not so much a human invention as it is a force of nature, one that endures and flourishes despite our best attempts to ruin it. And believe it or not, the real principles of English grammar—the ones that promote clarity and sense—weren't invented by despots but have emerged from the nature of the language itself. And they actually make sense!

So when you think about the rules of grammar, try to think like that guy in the back of the room, and never be afraid to challenge what seems silly or useless. Because what seems silly or useless probably isn't a real rule at all. It's probably a misconception that grammarians have tried for years to correct. There are dozens of ersatz "rules" of English grammar. Let's start with Public Enemy Number 1.

Myth #1: Don't Split an Infinitive.

"Split" all you want, because this old superstition has never been legit. Writers of English have been doing it since the 1300s.

Where did the notion come from? We can blame Henry Alford, a 19th-century Latinist and Dean of Canterbury, for trying to criminalize the split infinitive. (Latin, by the way, is a recurring theme in the mythology of English grammar.) In 1864, Alford published a very popular grammar book, A Plea for the Queen's English, in which he declared that to was part of the infinitive and that the parts were inseparable. (False on both counts.) He was probably influenced by the fact that the infinitive, the simplest form of a verb, is one word in Latin and thus can't be split. So, for example, you shouldn't put an adverb, like boldly, in the middle of the infinitive phrase to go—as in to boldly go. (Tell that to Gene Roddenberry!)

Grammarians began challenging Alford almost immediately. By the early 20th century, the most respected authorities on English (the linguist Otto Jespersen, the lexicographer Henry Fowler, the grammarian George O. Curme, and others) were vigorously debunking the split-infinitive myth, and explaining that "splitting" is not only acceptable but often preferable. Besides, you can't really split an infinitive, since to is just a prepositional marker and not part of the infinitive itself. In fact, sometimes it's not needed at all. In sentences like "She helped him to write," or "Jack helped me to move," the to could easily be dropped.

But against all reason, this notorious myth of English grammar lives on—in the public imagination if nowhere else.

This wasn't the first time that the forces of Latinism had tried to graft Latin models of sentence structure onto English, a Germanic language. Read on.

Myth #2: Don't End a Sentence With a Preposition.

An 18th-century Anglican bishop named Robert Lowth wrote the first popular grammar book to claim that a preposition didn't belong at the end of a sentence (as in, What was this guy up to?). Others before him had made the same claim, notably the poet John Dryden.

This affectation, like the one about not "splitting" infinitives, proved popular with Latin-educated schoolmasters, probably because Latin sentences don't end in prepositions. But the pedants were forgetting one small detail: English isn't a Latinate language, it's Germanic. And in Germanic languages, sentences routinely end in prepositions. Great English literature from Chaucer to Milton to Shakespeare to the King James version of the Bible is stuffed with these "terminal prepositions."

Probably the word "preposition," from the Latin for "position before," suggested to pedagogues that a preposition must never come last. Be that as it may, Curme and Jespersen recognized the final preposition as natural and instinctive, and Fowler went further: "The legitimacy of the prepositional ending in literary English must be uncompromisingly maintained," he wrote. Amen!

Myth #3: And Don't Start a Sentence with a Conjunction.

We've all heard this one too, right? Does it make sense? No. And here's why.

Conjunctions like and and but and or have been used to start English sentences since as far back as the 10th century. This feels natural because it is natural.

Over the years, some English teachers have enforced the notion that conjunctions should be used only to join elements within a sentence, not to join one sentence with another. But there's never been any evidence for this belief. Modern grammarians have insisted for years that conjunctions are properly used to join words, phrases, clauses or sentences.

And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Myth #4: None Is Always Singular.

This is nonesense. Though none can be singular, it's much more likely to be plural, as Fowler and many others have pointed out. Why? Because we commonly use it to make a negative statement about all of the members of a class.

See which one sounds more reasonable to you: "None of the dogs bites" (singular), or "None of the dogs bite" (plural). See what I mean? Anyone who prefers the first sentence was probably taught (mistakenly) that none is derived etymologically from "not one" and always means "not one." But authorities including the Oxford English Dictionary trace the origins of none to the Old English word nan (or nane), a pronoun that meant "not any of a number of things" and was commonly plural. It also appears in some Old English texts to mean "no people," with the singular form expressed as "no one."

Consequently, in most cases none is plural and takes a plural verb, as in "None of the windows are broken."

None is singular only when it means "none of it"—that is, "no amount." ("None of the glass is cracked.") If you really do mean "not one," it's better to say "not one."

Myth #5: Whose Can Only Refer to People.

One last hobgoblin. A great many educated people insist that we shouldn't use the word whose to refer to an inanimate object. True believers would never say, "Don't buy a car whose engine is shot." They'd insist on "Don't buy a car the engine of which is shot." Please. This is not only a silly rule—it's a damned awkward one.

This prohibition is a bigger lemon than the car. If you don't believe it, check Fowler. The inanimate "whose," he said, has history, common sense and convenience on its side. And the Oxford English Dictionary says that whose has been used for centuries as the genitive (or possessive) form of what as well as who.

The lesson here? The sillier rules of English grammar aren't genuine rules at all, just misconceptions. When in doubt, go ahead and doubt! A little research may show that while English is a peculiar language, it's not as peculiar as all that. If you'd like to know more about grammar myths, take a look at this page from my website.

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May 5, 2008 - 5:16am
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