A List of Grammar Myths
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.
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Terrible grammar and how to use words properly
- Their grammar was terrible.
- They’re the ones with terrible grammar.
- There are many posts with terrible grammar.
- Terrible grammar affects my enjoyment of Tumblr.
- Thankfully, there are no lasting effects from reading posts with terrible grammar.
- It’s not fun to read posts with terrible grammar.
- Tumblr has its share of writers with terrible grammar.
- You’re the one who doesn’t understand how much this bothers me.
- Your grammar is terrible.
- I cannot accept your grammatical errors.
- Everybody I follow except for a handful of people seem to make this grammar mistake regularly.
- Whose terrible grammar was that?
- Who’s the one with terrible grammar?
- I hate to point this out, but your grammar sucks.
- Your grammar is just too terrible.
- Having good grammar is more than just the few mistakes I’ve pointed out.
- If you know you have bad grammar, then fix it!
There’s plenty more where those came from, but I’m pretty sure you’re sick of reading about them now.
Fact: I’ve never actually went on a date.
I go, I went, I have gone.