By Mignon Fogarty
It’s not wrong to split infinitives.
It’s not wrong to use “that” to refer to a person (e.g., the man that bought my car).
It’s not wrong to treat “data” as singular.
The trouble is that a lot of people believe all those things (and more) are wrong. I hear from them every time I give a radio interview, and it’s a problem I face every day when I give people advice. Do I tell them the real rule (“data” can be singular or plural) when it could get them in trouble with their boss or teacher who may be misinformed? People come to me for advice because they don’t want to get in trouble; they don’t want to be perceived as being wrong. I want to give them the answers they need, but I also don’t want to support or reinforce grammar myths.
The best solution I’ve come up with is to explain the modern, accepted positions (it’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition), but also to warn people that even though language experts say such things are fine, many people in the real world never get that far. They believe what they were taught as children and have never investigated whether those “rules” are right or wrong, or they don’t accept that language changes over time. I want my readers to know that it’s fine to split infinitives, but also to recognize that they don’t have to split infinitives and sometimes it’s safest not to.