You can break “false rules” of grammar

“From where he’s coming” ended a sentence in an article I read the other day. Does anyone speak like that? I suspect that the writer changed “where he’s coming from” because she was taught in school that a preposition should never end a sentence.

Such “false rules,” says Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, “have a curiously tenacious ability to stick around in defiance of common sense, grammar experts, and the way that actual people use the English language.” 

When I worked as a university publications editor, I occasionally encountered clients who were adamant about following a guideline that they learned once upon a time. Trying to avoid faulting a fondly remembered teacher, I would turn to usage experts to support my case. 

After coming across the “from where he’s coming” example, I thought about the so-called rules that I probably break the most and compiled this list. Even though I scrapped these precepts decades ago, if I ever followed some of them, I double-checked each item in usage guides.

A sentence shouldn’t start with and or but.

It is perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with and, but, or other conjunctions like so, yet, and or. It’s sometimes desirable, since a conjunction connects what you just said with what you are about to say. (Also, in almost no instance should a sentence-leading conjunction be followed by a comma.)

An infinitive shouldn’t be split.

It’s nice to keep “to” and its verb together, but sometimes doing so results in awkward construction. You would not say to someone, “I want really to know,” or “I want to know really.” Let your instinct guide you about where an adverb with an infinitive sounds best.

Avoid contractions.

This rule still holds in formal writing, but in informal and journalistic writing, go ahead and use can’t, don’t, didn’t, should’ve, and other contractions. By all means, use them when you are quoting someone; people talk in contractions.

Avoid the passive voice.

Passive construction makes the object of an action into the subject of the sentence. In many cases, it is better to switch the sentence around so that the actor is the subject. But when the action is most important (for instance, “The date for the next meeting was set”), or the actor is unknown or insignificant, the passive voice is appropriate.

Every sentence must be complete — i.e., contain a subject and a verb.

Used sparingly for emphasis, sentence fragments can add punch to a thought. Just make sure you sound like you know what you’re doing. 

Avoid clichés.

This is another guideline for most of the time but not always. If a cliché perfectly expresses your meaning, and you can’t think of a better way to put it, go ahead and use the cliché.

A sentence shouldn’t end with a preposition

See above.

Scholars don’t even know where some of the above fallacies originated. As curmudgeonly as the next editor when it comes to language usage, I’m not saying that you should disregard the rules, but you should learn which of them are real.

•••••

NOW ACCEPTABLE: DATA IS  

An old editor can still learn new tricks (cliché intentional). I was going to rail about the Chicago Tribune’s use of data as a singular and saved myself embarrassment by googling whether style guides have changed their guidance. Indeed, the Associated Press Stylebook, widely used in newsrooms, now suggests treating data as singular when writing for general audiences. 

The language changes — and that supports my point above. The grammar rules Ms. Jones taught you in high school, even if accepted then, may not apply anymore. 

And if you’re thinking I should have capitalized googling, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary allows the lowercase, and that’s enough permission for me.

•••••

CHANGE OF SUBJECT: WHAT’S GOING ON

If I had known earlier that Columbia College would exhibit Pete Souza’s photographs of Barack Obama’s presidency, and if the exhibition had lasted more than two weeks, I would have talked it up. If you’d seen Souza’s book of those photos, you know how wonderful they are. I accidentally found out about the exhibition shortly before it closed last Saturday and went at the last opportunity.

I thought about how many things must come and go without my knowing about them. Wondering whether I should look for a reliable way to find out what’s going on near me, I reminded myself that there will always be more than I can take advantage of, and that’s a benefit of living in a big city.

Filed under: Language use, Uncategorized

Comments

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  • Great post, thank you!

  • Thank you for your reassurance. I suppose no one (except you and I) would know the singular "datum" anymore. Since you passed along your copy of William Safire's "On Language," I'll add a few of his "Fumblerules," or grammar rules that illustrate the mistakes they forbid: "Don't use no double negatives. No sentence fragments. It is incumbent on us to avoid archaisms. Never use a long word where a diminutive one will do. De-accession euphemisms." Cheers!

  • Thanks to you both for commenting.

  • "It is perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with and, but, or other contractions like so, yet, and or. It’s sometimes desirable, since a contraction connects what you just said with what you are about to say. (Also, in almost no instance should a sentence-leading contraction be followed by a comma." -- great post but SOBFANY (so, or, but, for, and, nor, yet) are CONJUNCTIONS not contractions.

  • In reply to barnes8934:

    Yes, you are correct. Brain fog on my part. Thanks for allowing me to correct my mistake.

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