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Debunking Grammar Myths

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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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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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