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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25 Facts About the Scripps National Spelling Bee
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Call it the Super Bowl of Spelling. This week, a record 516 pint-sized spellers are sweating out their ABCs in the Maryland Ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, hoping to be crowned the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. You may know how to spell “victory,” but here are 25 things you might not know about the country’s best-known gathering of logophiles.

1. IT WAS ORGANIZED BY A NEWSPAPER.

The National Spelling Bee was inaugurated in 1925 by Kentucky’s Louisville Courier-Journal as a way to consolidate a number of local spelling bees and generate “general interest among pupils in a dull subject.” (Cash prizes have a tendency to do that.) The E.W. Scripps Company didn’t take ownership of the Bee until 1941.

2. FRANK NEUHAUSER WAS THE BEE’S FIRST OFFICIAL CHAMPION.

Neuhauser, an 11-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky, beat out eight other finalists to become the National Spelling Bee’s first champion. His word for the win? Gladiolus. Yes, the flower. On March 22, 2011, Neuhauser—a retired lawyer—passed away at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland at the age of 97.

3. IN 1926, PAULINE BELL BECAME THE FIRST FEMALE CHAMPION.

In the Bee’s second year, it declared its first female winner, Pauline Bell, who won by correctly spelling the color cerise. Bell kicked off a trend of female winners: Of the Spelling Bee’s 93 champions, 48 of them have been girls. This year, 45 percent of the competitors are girls.

4. THERE WERE NO WINNERS IN 1943, 1944, OR 1945.

That’s because the Spelling Bee was put on hold during World War II.

5. THERE WERE TWO WINNERS ON SIX OCCASIONS

Spellers Nihar Saireddy Janga and Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar hold a trophy after the finals of the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee
Alex Wong, Getty Images

Co-champions have long been a possibility at the National Spelling Bee, and were a reality in 1950, 1957, 1962, 2014, 2015, and 2016, when 11-year-old Nihar Janga of Austin, Texas, and 13-year-old Jairam Hathwar of Corning, New York, both walked away winners. To prevent this continuing trend, the Bee changed the rules in 2017 by requiring all of the spellers still standing at 6 p.m. on the Bee's final day to complete a written test to be used to break a tie.

6. THE BEE WAS FIRST TELEVISED IN 1946.

The Bee’s national finals were first broadcast live on NBC in 1946. Portions of the Spelling Bee have since been broadcast on PBS and ABC as well. But since 1994, ESPN has been the Bee’s biggest champion, broadcasting near-constant spelling action throughout the entire competition.

7. NO ONE REALLY KNOWS WHERE THE WORD “BEE” COMES FROM.

According to the folks at Scripps:

"The word ‘bee,’ as used in ‘spelling bee,’ is one of those language puzzles that has never been satisfactorily accounted for. A fairly old and widely-used word, it refers to a community social gathering at which friends and neighbors join together in a single activity (sewing, quilting, barn raising, etc.) usually to help one person or family.

"The earliest known example in print is a spinning bee, in 1769 ... Spelling bee is apparently an American term. It first appeared in print in 1875, but it seems certain that the word was used orally for several years before that."

8. MERRIAM-WEBSTER'S UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY IS THE SPELLING BEE BIBLE.

With more than 472,000 word entries, it’s the official dictionary [PDF] of the Scripps National Spelling Bee—and the only one that counts in terms of spelling.

9. KIDS ARE GIVEN A TOTAL OF TWO MINUTES TO SPELL A WORD.

The countdown begins when the pronouncer first pronounces the word.

10. “KNAIDEL” CAUSED A CONTROVERSY IN 2013.

 Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, New York holds his trophy as president of the E.W. Scripps Company Rich Boehne looks on after the finals of the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee
Alex Wong, Getty Images

In 2013, New Yorker Arvind Mahankali won the competition by spelling the word “knaidel,” another word for matzo ball. While a number of Yiddish speakers claimed that Mahankali's spelling was incorrect, the then-13-year-old's spelling of the word was the same as Merriam-Webster's, leading the event’s organizers to declare that there was no controversy at all.

11. A TRAFFIC LIGHT HELPS SPELLERS KEEP TRACK OF THE TIME.

Spellers have the benefit of viewing a monitor with a traffic light to keep track of time. For the first 75 seconds, the traffic light is green, followed by 15 seconds of yellow. At the 30-second mark, the light turns red and a countdown clock appears. Neither the judges nor the pronouncer can communicate with the speller once the monitor has shifted into “red light mode.”

12. PRONOUNCER DR. JACQUES BAILLY IS A CHAMPION SPELLER, TOO.

For the past 16 years, Dr. Jacques Bailly has served as the Spelling Bee’s official pronouncer, and was an associate pronouncer for 12 years before that. But his history with the Spelling Bee goes back even further—all the way back to 1980, when he won the whole shebang at the age of 14 by correctly spelling elucubrate.

13. DR. BAILLY DOESN’T PLAY FAVORITES.

“I always want them to get all the words right,” Bailly told TIME in 2009 about sympathizing with the entire lineup of spellers. “I think that's a lot of the fun of the spelling bee—you root for everybody. And I try to make it clear to the spellers that I'm there to give them absolutely every possible thing that I can to help them—within some limits.” In fact, it’s part of Bailly’s job to help the speller. If he has some word information that he senses could be helpful to the speller, he can offer it up without the speller requesting it.

14. THEY TAKE “THE GIGGLE FACTOR” INTO ACCOUNT.

In a 2003 interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Bailly admitted that in the days leading up to the final event, Spelling Bee officials review every word for a final time and take into account something they call “the giggle factor,” explaining that “A word like ‘titillation’ might cause a sixth-, seventh- or eighth-grader to giggle.”

15. THE FIRST RULE OF THE SPELLING BEE WORD COMMITTEE IS YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT THE SPELLING BEE WORD COMMITTEE.

 Despite misspelling his word, Ronald Walters of Onalaska, Wisconsin, is high-fived by his fellow competitors during the third round of the 91st Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center May 30, 2018
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Though there is a committee of officials who approve all the words that will be used in any year’s competition, “The first rule of the committee is not admitting that you’re on the committee,” Bee spokesman Chris Kemper told TIME in 2013. “The committee is the secret sauce of the spelling bee and the identity of those on the committee will not be revealed.”

16. BUT DR. BAILLY IS A MEMBER.

“It is true that Jacques is on the word committee,” Kemper admitted to ABC Denver in 2014. “But beyond that, the members of the team and their process is secret.”

17. MISSPELLINGS AREN’T THE ONLY CAUSE FOR DISQUALIFICATION.

In addition to clearly misspelling a word, there are four other reasons a speller can be disqualified. These include not approaching the microphone when it’s the speller’s at-bat ("unless there are extenuating circumstances that, in the judges’ sole discretion, merit holding the speller’s word in reserve and offering it to the speller after all other spellers in the round have spelled and before the close of the round"); engaging in “unsportsmanlike conduct”; altering the letters or sequence of letters in the process of retracing a spelling; or uttering “unintelligible or nonsense sounds” during the spelling process.

18. THE SPELLING BEE REQUIRES MORE THAN JUST SPELLING.

In 2013, vocabulary questions were added to the preliminary rounds, a move that was met with criticism by some, who believe that a spelling bee should be a test of one’s spelling ability only. But the Bee’s executive director, Paige Kimble, says the change in procedure is one that helps reinforce the Bee’s educational purpose. “What we know with the championship-level spellers is that they think of their achievement in terms of spelling and vocabulary being two sides of the same coin,” Kimble told the Associated Press in 2013. “These spellers will be excited at the opportunity to show off their vocabulary knowledge through competition.”

19. PAIGE KIMBLE AND DR. BAILLY GO WAY BACK.

When Dr. Bailly became the Spelling Bee champion back in 1980, it was Kimble (then known as Paige Pipkin) who he defeated. But all was not lost: She won the very next year, and has been working with the organization in a professional capacity since 1984.

20. “SCHWARMEREI” HAS KNOCKED OUT TWO FINALISTS.

 David Tidmarsh peers over his placard as his final opponent, Akshay Buddiga, spells a word during the National Spelling Bee June 3, 2004
Matthew Cavanaugh, Getty Images

This German origin noun, which means excessive sentimentality, has knocked out two finalists in recent years, once in 2004 and again in 2012. The former incident happened to 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga, who famously fainted on stage in the middle of spelling alopecoid earlier in the competition, only to get up and spell the word correctly.

21. "CONNOISSEUR" IS A WORD TO ANTICIPATE.

The French origin noun is the most frequent word on the Scripps National Spelling Bee word lists.

22. GOOD SPELLERS MAKE GREAT SCIENTISTS.

Jeffrey Blitz, who directed the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound about the National Spelling Bee, told TIME how he observed that many Spelling Bee finalists go on to have careers in science and medicine. “Something about the kind of brain that’s not intimidated by the dictionary in childhood seems well-suited to the work of medicine in adulthood,” he noted.

23. MORE THAN ONE-FIFTH OF THIS YEAR’S SPELLERS ARE BEE VETS.

Of 2018's 516 competitors, 113 of them—nearly 22 percent—have competed previously at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

25. SIVASAIPRANEETHREDDY DEVIREDDY IS THIS YEAR’S YOUNGEST SPELLER.

 Competitors walk past the championship trophy on display during the third round of the 91st Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center May 30, 2018
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 2017, 5-year-old Edith Fuller became the Bee's youngest-ever speller. This year, 8-year-old Sivasaipraneethreddy Devireddy (Speller #383), from Mooresville, North Carolina, is the youngest competitor.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2014.

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Why You Shouldn't Trust the New Study That Supports Putting Two Spaces After a Period
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Writers, style guides, and people who spend a lot of time reading generally agree that one space after a period is highly preferable to two, but there remains a small group of people who refuse to let go of this convention left over from the typewriter era. Now, two-space devotees have a scientific study on their side. As The Verge reports, a new paper from Skidmore College psychologists suggests that adding two spaces after each period makes text easier to read.

For the study, researchers gathered 60 college students and had them write out a paragraph to determine if they were one-spacers or two-spacers. Next, they asked them to read a sample text while wearing eye-tracking devices. They found that subjects who read the paragraphs styled with two spaces spent less time focusing on the punctuation at the end of each sentence (likely because the extra space made it clearer where the sentence stopped). Students who used two spaces in their own writing read faster when given the two-spaced text.

But don't expect the new findings to shake up style standards any time soon. The study authors admit that while reading text with just one space after each sentence leads to more time spent scanning for periods, the effects are minimal. People in the one-space camp read the paragraphs just as fast regardless of how the text was styled, and the difference in spacing didn't impact reading comprehension in either group. The researchers also used a monospaced font for the study, which may be good for an experiment that requires consistency, but isn't exactly representative of the fonts readers encounter in everyday life.

The question of spacing is as old as typesetting itself. The first printers had two space sizes: a regular one for separating words and a slightly larger one—the emspace—for separating sentences. When typewriters hit the scene, the emspace was replaced with two spaces, and this style of writing was standard for decades. A divide emerged with the advent of more advanced typesetting technology around the mid-1900s. It got easier for printing companies to achieve uniform spacing, and adding two spaces after periods, which many people agree looks sloppy and jarring, started to fall out of fashion. But while the typewriter has disappeared from desks, the two-space method has stuck around. This new study suggests it will likely be with us for a bit longer.

[h/t The Verge]

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