Relax, Grammar Pedant. Everything You Know Is Wrong

Relax, Grammar Pedant. Everything You Know Is Wrong

Rules are rules, and they exist for a reason. They create order and minimize uncertainty. They are necessary because nothing would work without them. But some people don’t seem to understand that.

They don’t understand why it’s bad to split your infinitives, or why you shouldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction, or why you can’t end it with a preposition. Some people just don’t care. Some people just want to watch the world burn, fuelled by the misuse of “good” for “well,” and “while” for “though.” But if the world really depends on people adhering to those strict and sometimes obscure grammar rules, it might as well burn. Because all of the pedantic rules mentioned above are wrong. Forget everything you know, grammar pedant, because it’s all a lie.

Okay, so maybe the world won’t burn, and maybe not everything you know about grammar is a lie. A lot of it might be, though. Some grammar rules are simply myths with little to no basis in how the language is actually used. Other grammar rules aren’t applicable across the whole spectrum of English subtypes and dialects. And there are rules with so many exceptions that they probably shouldn’t be called rules.

Take the myth about ending sentences with a preposition, for example. We know exactly who to blame for this little superstition. John Dryden, a seventeenth-century British poet, was the person who came up with this “rule.” Robert Lowth, a bishop in the Church of England and a composer of prescriptive grammar textbooks, is often blamed for perpetuating the myth, but in fact he said quite clearly that avoiding a sentence-ending preposition is a matter of style, not grammar. Why did Dryden and Lowth do this? Well, they were men of their time, and in their time it was very popular to force English to follow the the rules of another language. That other language was, you guessed it, Latin. It’s true, you can’t end a sentence with a preposition in Latin. But it’s a common and correct construction in English.

The prohibition against splitting infinitives is another one that seems to have sprung from a fondness for applying Latin grammar rules to English. In English, splitting an infinitive means inserting an adverb between “to” and the uninflected form of a verb (e.g., “to boldly go”). Latin doesn’t have split infinitives because in Latin an infinitive is a single word. But in English, rigidly avoiding split infinitives can change the meaning of your sentence or make it more difficult to understand. So go ahead and split an infinitive when you need to, Latin be damned.

Another of these hobgoblins is the supposed rule that you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction. Starting too many sentences with conjunctions will make your writing awkward, for sure, but never doing it? It’s overkill. Conjunctions glue the elements of your writing together. These elements might be words or clauses. But they can also be sentences.

The rules governing the use of “that” and “which” are also a bit shaky. The rule says that we should use “that” for restrictive relative clauses and save “which” for nonrestrictive relative clauses. This rule is sort of half-true, because using “that” for nonrestrictive relative clauses does sound a bit awkward. But the part of the rule that says you can’t use “which” for restrictive relative clauses is, well, not a good rule. You can do it, and there are situations when it’s the only choice you can make.

The point is that you shouldn’t blindly follow every prescriptive rule you come across without a second thought. Following these rules in formal writing and speaking might do you some good—people believe they’re true, remember—but in your everyday communication, you don’t have to worry about splitting infinitives or starting sentences with conjunctions. You can sometimes even let your modifiers dangle.

There are plenty of real rules to worry about, after all. Do you know the proper order of adjectives, for example? You probably wouldn’t be able to recite it off the top of your head, but if you use more than one adjective to describe something, you will intuitively arrange them in a way that just sounds good. You will say that something is big or small before you say which color it is. You will say that something is new or old before you say it’s French or British or Ugandan. There are plenty of rules you use you’re not even aware of. So relax, grammar pedant. Sit back, grab some marshmallows, and enjoy the fire if you think it’s there.

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