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4 Fake Grammar Rules You Don't Need to Worry About

There are many grammar rules that the student of English must learn about in order to understand how the language works. There are some rules, however, that don’t reflect how the language works at all and are simply passed down from generation to generation just because. It’s good to be familiar with them for the same reason it’s good to know arbitrary dress code customs, which is to say, because someone might judge you for not following them, but they have little to do with logic, clarity, the facts of English, or even being a good writer. Here are four grammar rules that aren’t really rules at all.

1. DON’T SPLIT INFINITIVES.

The rule against splitting infinitives says that nothing must come between a to and its verb. It is incorrect to boldly go. One must instead arrange to go boldly, or boldly to go. But this rule has no real justification. In fact, this rule was never mentioned in any treatises on English until an 1834 anonymous article proposed it, claiming that keeping the to and the verb next to each other is what good authors did. But plenty of good authors had in fact been splitting infinitives for hundreds of years, from John Wycliffe in the 14th century to Samuel Johnson in the 18th.

Though many writers thought this imaginary rule was unnecessary and even sometimes harmful to clarity (George Bernard Shaw said, “Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it”), it somehow made its way into a number of usage guides and stayed there. Read Tom Freeman's history of the rule here

2. DON’T END A SENTENCE WITH A PREPOSITION.

We are told not to end a sentence with a preposition. What is this rule for? I mean, for what is this rule? Wait, would anyone really use the second construction to ask this question? Ending a sentence with a preposition is completely natural in English and not at all wrong. The rule came about during the 17th century when scholars were deeply immersed in the study of Latin and took to emulating Latin as a model of linguistic purity. Because a preposition can’t be stranded in Latin, some thought that the same should hold for English. But English differs from Latin in countless ways, and to cling to a prohibition that forces you to swap It’s nothing to worry about for It’s nothing about which to worry does not encourage good style or clarity of expression. Don’t believe me? Ask Oxford Dictionaries.

But what about sentences like Where’s he at? or Do you want to come with? Should those be considered correct, then? No. Those are examples of non-standard grammar because they're used in non-standard dialects, not because they end with prepositions. At where is he? does not sound any better, and if the problem with come with is the ending preposition, why doesn’t come along sound just as bad? 

3. DON’T USE "THEY" AS A SINGULAR PRONOUN.

The rule says that because they is a plural pronoun, it must have a plural antecedent. This means that the sentence If anyone has a problem with that, they should tell me is wrong because anyone is singular and they is plural. They should be switched to a singular pronoun, but which one? “Generic he” was the prescription in the 19th century (If anyone has a problem with that, he should tell me), but as it became clear that he was neither generic nor neutral, the suggestion was to either use the cumbersome “he or she” (If anyone has a problem with that, he or she should tell me) or to rewrite the sentence entirely (Got a problem with that? Let me know).

Sticklers have been wringing their hands about how to reconcile this rule with guidelines for nonsexist language for decades now, but the solution has been right there all along. Just use singular they. The pronouns they/them/their have been used with singular antecedents for centuries. It’s perfectly good English. It sounds completely natural. Great writers like Shakespeare and Austen used it. Does anyone really think Everyone clapped his hands sounds better than Everyone clapped their hands?

Editors like John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun have been letting the singular they through for a while now and most of the time no one notices. What we have in singular they, according to linguist Geoff Pullum, is “a logically impeccable construction that expert users of the language regularly employ and experienced listeners unhesitatingly accept. I wonder what more one would need to take something to be grammatical.” 

4. DON’T START A SENTENCE WITH "HOPEFULLY."

The ban on hopefully as a sentence adverb meant that you were only to use it to mean “in a hopeful manner.” So I waited hopefully was good, but Hopefully, the bus will get here soon was bad. Buses don’t do things in a hopeful manner! What you were supposed to say in that situation was It is hoped that the bus will get here soon.

Hopefully was being picked on rather unfairly. No one had a problem with fortunately/clearly/unbelievably/sadly/mercifully the bus will get here soon. There are plenty of other adverbs that can modify a whole sentence without causing a stir. Hopefully was singled out because it was new in the 60s, people noticed it, complained about it, and made up a reason to justify their complaints. It is still one of those gotcha words that attract the red pen, but even the AP Stylebook has given up trying to enforce the ban

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9 Grammatically Correct Gifts for Language Lovers
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Have a friend or relative who's quick to correct your typos? Give them a gift that celebrates their love of (grammatically correct) language.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of sales. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck gift hunting!

1. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED; $12

William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's extensive—and sometimes snarky—guide to grammar was published in 1920, but it's still considered a go-to for writing purists who are wary of change. The bookshelf staple, with a foreword by Roger Angell and updated with 57 colorful illustrations by Maira Kalman, is sure to offer up hours of education (which is entertainment to the language lover in your life).

Find It: Amazon

2. PENCILS; $9

These pencils will help keep common homophones straight. The retro sets of five are decorated with gold foil letters hand-pressed onto the sides. The Etsy store also offers up a set of red pencils that feature short, grammar-positive statements.

Find It: Etsy

3. QUOTE EARRINGS; $9

High marks: The delicate metal earrings are about a half-inch tall, making them a subtle but charming choice for any punctuation lover.

Find It: ModCloth

4. *YOU'RE NECKLACE; $24 AND UP

*You're necklace
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The pendant, which comes in the material of your choice, is dedicated to a well-known pet peeve amongst the literate.

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5. PUNCTUATION POSTER; $36

Everyone knows about the question mark and the semicolon, but what about the interrobang? This simple poster, available in three different sizes and 60 different colors, celebrates the punctuation that really helps writers get their point across. It's printed on satin luster paper with ChromaLife 100 inks, creating a long-lasting piece of artwork.

Find It: Etsy

6. SHADY CHARACTERS; $12

Keith Houston's book offers up a thorough look at the history of the written word. Readers can learn about the rich stories behind punctuation marks, including tales that cover everything from Ancient Roman graffiti to George W. Bush.

Find It: Amazon

7. AMPERSAND MARQUEE; $19

The ampersand is a divisive punctuation mark in writing, but it's widely loved in design; the attractive logogram can be found everywhere from wedding invitations to tattoos. This metal light stands at almost 10 inches, making it a nice statement piece in any home.

Find It: Amazon

8. POP CULTURE PARTS OF SPEECH; $29

Grammar is even more accessible with the help of beloved pop culture characters. ET, Robocop, Holly Golightly, Walter White, and more all come together to help teach tricky grammar terms. The poster is broken down into seven basic parts: nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

9. OWL SHIRT; $15

Do you have a friend who's always correcting everyone with a stern "whom"? With the help of two owls, this shirt pokes light fun at two counterparts to the oft-neglected word. The lightweight, cotton shirt comes in a classic white with sizes for men, women, and children.

Find It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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How to Properly Use 'Who' vs. 'Whom'
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by Reader's Digest

“Who” gets to have all the fun. Who gets to be on first. Who is responsible for letting the dogs out. Meanwhile, “whom” is sitting in the corner, being perceived as pretentious by plenty of English speakers.

But whom isn’t neglected due to any flaw—not at all. Whom is neglected because plenty of people just aren’t quite sure when the time is right to use it in a sentence, kind of like figuring out when it is seasonally acceptable to start wearing boots. It’s important to know, though. Now, with some help from Grammarly, we clarify the official who vs. whom rules.

In plain terms, whom is meant to be used to refer to the object of preposition or verb, while who should refer to the subject of the sentence. Here are two examples of proper usages:

  • To whom should the letter on the importance of grammar be addressed?
  • Who is responsible for making this delightful crockpot lasagna?

 
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A useful trick to make sure that you’re using each one properly requires you to do a quick substitution: Slide in he or him or she or her into the place of the who or whom. Now, let’s review the above-listed examples with the added in substitutions.

  • I should address the letter on the importance of grammar to him. (Whom was properly used.)
  • He is responsible for making this delightful crockpot lasagna. (Who was properly used.)

Now you can go out into the world and impress every grammarian you encounter. Sadly for whom, who will always play first fiddle, always relating to the subject.

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