166. Grammar snobs and imaginary mistakes

My uncle was a headmaster and an English teacher by profession. I once asked him if he knew the poet, e.e. cummings. He replied “No, I haven’t had that pleasure. If you mean, do I know of him, the answer is yes.” We’ve all encountered grammar snobs and writers’ inboxes bulge with well-meaning suggested corrections from friends and colleagues. The interesting thing is that, often, the suggestions invoke rules that don’t exist.

Rule 1: Never start a sentence with a conjunction

Can you start a sentence with a conjunction? Many people believe the answer is no. But, grammatically, it’s fine. See? I started that sentence with the conjunction “but” (“and” is another common conjunction and “or” another).

What was effect of using “but” there? I could have written it as “Many people believe the answer is no, but, grammatically, it’s fine.”  Separating the thoughts with a full stop rather than a comma is a way of emphasising the contrast (“On the one hand this. But, in fact, on the other hand, that”).

The truth is you can start a sentence with a conjunction if it feels right. Bear in mind, though, that some people will think it’s a grammatical mistake and be pulled out of the flow.  Also (another conjunction), don’t overuse it, or your writing will start to seem choppy.

Rule 2: Never end a sentence with a preposition

Ending a sentence with a preposition is a mistake up with which you should not put. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? It’s much more natural to say “Ending a sentence with a preposition is a mistake which you should not put up with.” Again, this is perfectly grammatical. There is no rule that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. It’s simply less formal.  Prepositions are words like to, up, at, in, of, for, with, etc. They show the relationship between one thing and another. If you are writing formally (such as in a report) you might want to avoid ending sentences with prepositions.  For example, you’d probably be better advised to say  in court “That’s the town in which I live”, rather than “That’s the town which I live in.”

Ruler 3: Never split an infinitive

This rule is an odd one. It wasn’t introduced formally until the nineteenth century and was gone by the end of the twentieth. Three generations were taught that it is grammatically incorrect “to boldly go”. 

An infinitive is a verb with its “to” suffix. When an adverb is inserted into between the ”to” and the verb, the infinitive is “split”. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says “”the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis.”

Rule 4: Never use adverbs

Don’t even get me started on this one.  Stephen King famously said “the road to hell is paved with adverbs”. Yet, across 51 books, he used an average of 105 adverbs per 10,000 words. That’s more than Ernest Hemingway (at 80 per 10,000 words. Also more than six other famous writers, but less than E.L. James at 155 per 10,000 words.  The rule is silly. Adverbs do a job—modifying verbs, as adjectives modify nouns. Of course, they should not be used where all they’re doing is strengthening weak verbs. Enough said.

Rule 5:

There really should be fifth rule to debunk, if only for reasons of number magic. Five sounds complete, whereas four sounds slapdash.  Oh dear.

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