CLOSE
Original image

Debunking Grammar Myths

Original image

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.

twitterbanner.jpg

Original image
iStock
arrow
Animals
25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
Original image
iStock

According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

Original image
iStock
arrow
fun
How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
Original image
iStock

If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios