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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Writer Mag Column 12: Three Grammar Myths

Ditch imaginary grammar rules, part 1

We grammarians love rules—and catching mistakes. You'll hear us say, "Don't put your apostrophe there. It goes here!" and "Make sure your subjects agree with your verbs!" Although we can be abrupt about grammar, we have to enforce these rules; otherwise, sentence chaos will ensue. And we will become upset.

Despite being one of those grammar snobs, I'm going to relax the rules today. Certain grammarians who came before me are wrong on a few counts. Yippee, you must be saying. We can ignore our grammar! Well, sort of. Let's take a closer look at a few questionable grammar rules.

Invented Grammar Rule 1: You may not end a sentence with a preposition.

Yes, you may! Winston Churchill weighed in on this supposed rule, saying, "That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put." I agree. I will not put up with such odd sentences.

"To put up with" is an example of a phrasal verb, usually formed with a verb plus a preposition (or two). You can see from the Churchill example how ridiculous the no-preposition rule is. Writers should not have to go to such bizarre lengths to avoid a preposition at the end of a sentence. Here's a sentence we can't even stick a "which" into:

The lad shot up.

Here, we're saying that a boy grew tall—and fast. How can we not end the sentence with "up" unless we manufacture a new ending? I suppose "The lad shot up last year" sounds okay, but it's fine to stop at "up."

Of course, you are allowed to use "which" or "whom" to write around a preposition at the end of a sentence if you want to be more formal. Sometimes it sounds all right; other times it sounds ridiculous. Here's an example that's not so ridiculous:

Preposition at the end: That's the direction I came from.
Rewrite to avoid a preposition at the end: That's the direction from which I came.

Now, you do want to avoid unnecessary wordy prepositions, such as the ones that end these sentences:

Where's it at? ("Where is it?" will suffice.)
Where's he going to? ("Where's he going?" is just fine.)
That's the bridge the strict grammarian is going to jump off of. (You don't need "of.")

Invented Grammar Rule 2: You may not start a sentence with "because"; nor may you do so with "however."

Baloney! (Except if you write a "because" fragment, such as "Because I want to." But then there's the exception to the no-fragment rule, which is that you may use one occasionally to highlight something.)

As far as using "because," there's no reason to put the effect first and the cause second. It's perfectly fine to put the cause first and then mention the consequences. This invented rule seems to be one we follow out of habit. Because we're not used to putting "because" at the start, it might sound odd. However, we don't need to bother with this rule anymore. You may prefer to use "because" in the middle, and that's fine. But if you want to be a little daring, use "because" at the start.

As far as "however," which indicates a contrast, you can put it wherever you want (within reason). Here are some options:

She doesn't like chocolate. I, however, think she's crazy.
She likes vanilla ice cream. However, I think she's crazy.
She doesn't eat cake. I think she's crazy, however.
She hates cookies; however, I think she's crazy.

Pick a "however," any "however." However, check your punctuation, please.

Another "however" we need to consider is a "however" that no grammar stickler can complain about if it comes at the beginning:

However grammatical you are, you can always improve.

In this case, "however" means "to whatever extent."

Invented Grammar Rule 3: You may not split an infinitive.

Incorrect. Invented rules are made to be broken. There's no law against using an adverb to break up the two parts of an infinitive: the "to" and the verb, as in "to drive."

We have quite a few options, so let's look at them all. Here's a normal sentence that doesn't break any supposed rules:

I needed to drive her to the store quickly.

But what would happen if I put "quickly" between "to" and "drive"? Some grammarians would frown. However, it's fine to split the infinitive as long as it sounds natural.

I needed to quickly drive her to the store.

This sounds pretty natural, doesn't it? I think so. Don't listen to sticklers who would avoid splitting an infinitive by writing a weird sentence like this:

I needed quickly to drive her to the store.

Although sentences like these aren't wrong, I'm going to complain about them. They sound awkward. I like my adverbs in the middle because that's where they usually sound the most natural.

Occasionally, though, some adverbs don't fit smoothly between the two words of an infinitive:

I wanted to then eat a sandwich.
He had to almost be sick.
The ship began to now list.

These sentences sound much better with their adverbs elsewhere:

Then I wanted to eat a sandwich.
He almost had to be sick.
The ship now began to list.

If you're having trouble deciding how to place adverbs around an infinitive, just go with what sounds best to your ear.

One last warning: Don't accidentally place your adverb between two words that it could modify. Readers will then be unsure which item the adverb modifies. Consider these sentences:

I resolved to quickly do my homework. ("Quickly" goes with "do.")
I quickly resolved to do my homework. ("Quickly" goes with "resolved.")
I resolved to do my homework quickly. ("Quickly" goes with "do.")
I resolved quickly to do my homework. (Ambiguous and awkward: could mean "resolved quickly" or "to do quickly." A no-no.)

Warning to breakers of these non-rules
Although you've seen that these so-called rules are not true grammar rules, some grammarians might criticize your perfectly fine sentence. Therefore, consider your audience when you break one of these non-rules. If you're writing for a potentially uptight group or person, you might want to ensure your sentences don't rub anyone the wrong way, even if you're right and they're not.

In my next column, I'll take on a few more supposed grammar rules that you can break. Yippee!

1 comment:

Westley said...

Excellent article! And it hits a few of my favourite issues.

For many years I subscribed to the Latin interpretation of a preposition (pre-position, that which comes before, so there must be something after), but then I suddenly realised that we NO LONGER speak Latin; English is our language! So I have managed to misquote Churchill many times in defence of prepositions at the end of things. And there’s always the example with too many prepositions at the end: Father brings a book about Australia upstairs to read a bedtime story to his son who says, “What did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to from out of about Down Under up for?”

I still have a bit of an issue with ‘because’ starting a sentence…but only when it is really a continuation of the previous sentence: “I don’t want any. Because I don’t like it.” Just combine them!

Your third point is interesting. My problem with splitting an infinitive usually revolves around the word ‘not’. I feel (from a logician’s point of view) that there is a significant difference between ‘not to do’ and ‘to not do’. The first can be accomplished by doing nothing, but the second requires you to actually do something, just the opposite of what is mentioned. (Similar to non-positive numbers are not necessarily negative numbers; you need to take zero into account.) But that often stretches things too far, so I can accept variations.