GRAMMATICAL MYTHS

RULES IS RULES, RIGHT?

Given that English is riddled with complex usage, forms and conventions, it’s good to know that some of the ‘rules’ forced down our necks by our school teachers are, perhaps, not rules at all. Language useage modifies over time, and protocols that may have been in vogue at one time can often be discarded by common usage or fashion. Also, some academics have been guilty of proposing either that English should respond to the same rules as Latin, or that a particular usage is applied evenly across the language – these assumptions are, of course, totally unwarranted.

So, I’ve picked a few common myths (or half-truths) to show that not all we were told in our English classes was necessarily the whole story:

Let’s deal with these once and for all.

MYTH 1

Do not split infinitives (or verb phrases)

An infinitive (for our purposes) is a basic verb preceded by the preposition ‘to’: to live; to go; to eat; to give. Sometime in the early 1800s, a number of grammarians came to believe that English should follow Latin rules and, therefore, splitting infinitives was somehow wrong. This was, and is, complete nonsense. In fact, there are examples of the split infinitive in English literature from the 13th century.

However, many early writers did not use the split infinitive. The King James version of The Bible used none; Shakespeare only used one; Spenser and Pope lived without them, but they can be found in Donne and Pepys. It is not known why the split infinitive went out of fashion from the 15th century, but there was certainly no known rule to prevent its use. However, this grammatical form began to reappear in the 18th century in the works of writers like Daniel Defoe, William Wordsworth and Abraham Lincoln – to mention a few. Here are some examples (infinitives in blue):

There are, in fact, some good reasons to use a split infinitive.

  1. To avoid ambiguity:
    The United Nations resolution only served to defer further hopes for a peace settlement. [Does further modify ‘defer’ or ‘hopes’? If this construction is used to avoid the split infinitive, then we have an ambiguity!]
  2. When avoiding the split infinitive is almost impossible:
    The government expected unemployment to more than double in the next 3 years. [Where else would you put ‘more than’?]
  3. Where to avoid splitting the infinitive sounds clumsy or artificial:
    She began to admonish sharply her students for their poor results. [The reader would wonder why sharply is placed after the verb.]
  4. Where the infinitive contains an auxilliary (part of the verb to be or to have):
    Our hope is for the economy to be constantly improving throughout the year. [Even those opposed to splitting infinitives would agree with this construction.]

As long as it doesn’t sound awkward, there is absolutely nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive. These are all perfectly correct: to really live, to quickly go, to hurriedly eat, to generously give. However, you should note that sometimes the split infinitive can sound dreadful, so these constructions should be avoided:

As with the split infinitive, there is nothing wrong with splitting verb phrases (like has been): It has always been acceptable to believe thou must not kill.

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MYTH 2

It is wrong to end sentences with prepositions

This is another example of a long-dead grammarian thinking English needed to obey the same rules as Latin. It doesn’t.

Winston Churchill is reputed to have put a zealous editor in his place when he was asked to correct a sentence so that it did not end with a preposition. Churchill scribbled this terse reply: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” This story may be apocryphal, but it nicely puts paid to the notion that one cannot use a preposition to end a sentence.

Consider these examples where ending with a preposition sounds less stuffy than the alternative:

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MYTH 3

It is ungrammatical to use ‘they’ and ‘their’ with a singular antecedent

Well, it is true that English does not have specific third-person, non-gender, singular pronouns – but we have been happily using the plurals their, they and them with singular antecedents since the time of the Magna Carta! Our greatest authors – Chaucer, Shelley, Byron, Austen, Wilde, Kipling, Shaw, Orwell, et al. – have always used the plural form with singular antecedents, so what’s the problem?

You guessed it: pedantic grammarians fixated with Latin – which is, ironically, a dead language! These examples prove the point (the singular antecedent and its plural pronoun are in blue):

If it was good enough for Walt, Willie, Oscar and Jane, then it should be good enough for the rest of us!

But a word of caution! The examples outlined above have become acceptable because the plural pronoun reflects back to an indefinite singular pronoun (everyone, no man, all, someone), and I would not hesitate to recommend that usage. The traditional rule is, however, that a pronoun should agree in case, number and gender with the noun (or antecedent) it refers to:

The real problem arises when the gender of a definite singular antecedent is not specific: a worker, a child, a shopper. The tradition here was to use the masculine pronoun (he, his) in these cases: a child always loves his mother.

However, this has always posed problems for grammarians – particularly in the current age with a desire for gender-neutral language. So, the following usage has become more acceptable in many quarters:

The typical student in the program takes about six years to complete their course work.

But it should be noted that this practice is still disputed in many circles. Eight-two percent of a panel of 200 distinguished writers and educators found the example above unacceptable – and a majority continue to reject the use of plural pronouns with singular antecedents. So, despite considerable historical acceptance, my advice would be to avoid, if possible, the use of plural pronouns with specific singular antecedents. To avoid controversy use one of the following styles:

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MYTH 4

‘It is me’ is ungrammatical; ‘it is I’ is the correct form

This is a complicated piece of grammar, and those stuffy pedants do have a vague technical argument to support their case. But you would need to completely ignore common usage (and be prepared to have others believe you’re a nerd) to go around saying, “It is I,” or “This is she!”

In traditional grammar, I, he, she, we and they are subjective personal pronouns – that is, they are always used as the subject of a sentence or clause. So, these examples are always correct:

Conversely, me, him, her, us and them are objective personal pronouns and are used as the object of a verb or preposition:

All this seems simple, but becomes a problem when using the verb ‘to be’ (am, are, is, was, were, etc.). This verb is technically different to other verbs; it is not a transitive verb, but … wait for it … a copulative verb!

Sounds good, hey? But what does it mean? Any pedant worth his salt will tell you that if A actually is B, then A cannot act on B. John may ride a horse (a subject acting on an object), but if John is the horse, then both are subjects – there is no object being acted on. And the verbs to become, to remain and to seem are in the same category. Yawn!

Now, the traditional view of these copulative verbs is that they must link noun phrases of the same case – that is, if a subjective pronoun comes before the verb, then a subjective pronoun must come after it. That logic, however, gives us this piece of twisted grammar: It is I who am at fault! At least the pedants will be happy!

However, since at least the 16th century common usage has preferred to ignore the special case of the copulative verb and simply use the objective case: It is me, that’s her, me too, or she is taller than him. We do, however, still adhere to the copulative verb rule when we ask “Who are they?” rather than “Whom are they?” or “Who are them?” – I did say it was complicated! And that leads us right onto the next myth.

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MYTH 5

Who is a subjective pronoun and must not be used where the objective pronoun whom is required

Well, this was quite correct in the distant past but, once again, this rule has largely fallen to the all-conquering force of common usage.

Strictly speaking, we should ask: whom are you talking to? This is because whom is the object of the preposition to. But, it does sound ever so stuffy, doesn’t it? Similarly, I wonder whom he took to the ball meets the test, as whom here is part of a noun clause (whom he took) that forms the object of the sentence. But again, to the modern ear this sounds overtly formal.

Although whom is still hanging on, it seems doomed to disappear in contemporary writing in the near future. Indeed, many grammarians already teach that who is technically correct for the beginning of sentences and phrases, and very few people would use whom in that way in conversation.

Whom is still slightly preferred where it directly follows a preposition (to whom am I speaking). However, only a straightlaced sophist would say: “I should stand behind whom?” (Also see Myth 9¾.)

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MYTH 6

Data and media are plural nouns and take a plural verb

Yes, if you speak Latin. If you speak English, words like agenda, opera and insignia shed their Latin singular forms a long time ago – and we now no longer use datum or medium as the singular forms of data or media.

Where data means information, it is always singular. Media can be better seen as a collective noun covering newspapers, television, radio and the Internet. Almost all dictionaries now give data and media as either plural or singular, and our verb choice should reflect the usage:

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MYTH 7

Never use double negatives

Perhaps … but let’s never say never. Here’s a story I like:

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class: “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. In some languages though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However,” he continued, “there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”

Then a voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right!”

In traditional English the double negative combines to provide a ‘logical’ positive and should generally be avoided. We didn’t do nothing means we did do something; he never takes me nowhere means he always takes me somewhere.

Equally, we should strictly avoid constuctions like: they barely have no ammunition left; or it was not an unjust verdict (we barely have any ammunition left / it was a just decision). However, some of our greatest writers have successfully used double negatives to effectively accentuate the negative:

And, sometimes, the double negative can be a useful device to avoid having to be entirely blunt:

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MYTH 8

None means not one and always takes a singular verb

Well, it doesn’t. Grammarians are generally of the belief that none is just as likely to mean not any, which is in the plural:

None is only singular when used to mean ‘none of it’:
Some grammarians argue that none should always be treated as a plural unless you have good reason to identify it as singular. Take these examples:

The reason the second example sounds better is because there is a plural pronoun in the prepositional phrase ‘of us’. The best advice is that when you mean not one, say not one.

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MYTH 9

Never begin a sentence with and, but or because

Complete rubbish! You would need to wonder if anyone teaching this rule had ever read any English literature at all. Our finest authors have been using conjunctions to start sentences for over a thousand years. But a word of caution: use this form too often and your writing will become dull.

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MYTH 9½

The relative pronoun that is only used for restrictive clauses and is not interchangeable with which

This is really a half-myth because the grammatical world is divided on the issue. It is generally championed in the US more than in other English-speaking countries; however, in the world of literature and common usage there is little evidence that anyone has regularly obeyed this rule for hundreds of years. The debate has often been called a which-hunt!

Those who argue in favour of this rule use the following guidelines:

  1. A restrictive clause is introduced by that and never separated from the sentence with commas:
    • The dog that bit me has been taken to the pound. [The phrase ‘that bit me restricts the meaning of ‘the dog’ because it identifies a specific dog.]
    • He hungrily ate the apple that had fallen from the tree, even though he had been forbidden to do so. [Not just any apple – the one that fell from the tree!]
    • A carry-bag that has no handles is useless. [If the restrictive clause is removed, the sentence has no sensible meaning.]
       
  2. A non-restrictive clause is introduced by which and separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma:
    • This house, which I have always loved, is up for sale. [The non-restrictive phrase can be removed without altering the basic meaning of the sentence.]
    • The sports car, which I wish I owned, was illegally parked. [What I wish for is only an aside – we’re really talking about a parked car.]
    • This claret, which I always enjoy, was bottled in South Australia.

There should be no pretence that these rules are strictly applied in literature or common usage (as with those applying to split infinitives). Some argue an in-between position where that can be used for both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, while which would often seem wrong when used in the restrictive clause:

In these examples, putting commas around the relative phrases would alter the meaning – and that is the reason we obey the comma rule for restrictive/non-restrictive phrases, even if we want to interchange that and which.

As you can see, in some situations that simply seems more natural than which. However, there are two cases where using which always sounds intrinsically wrong.

  1. In clauses that refer back to certain indefinite pronouns (anything, nothing, something or everything):
    • I have done nothing which I should apologise for. [This sounds awkward.]
      I have done nothing that I should apologise for. [Ahh! That’s better.]
    • There is something which I should tell you.
      There is something that I should tell you.
    • This holiday has been everything which I hoped for.
      This holiday has been everything that I hoped for.
       
  2. In clauses following superlatives (high praise):
    • Your meringue is the most superb which I have ever eaten! [Sounds like I’ve eaten a witch!]
      Your meringue is the most superb that I have ever eaten!
    • It is a far, far better thing which I do, than I have ever done … [Cringe!].
      It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done … (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities).

If you choose to follow these rules for relative pronouns, then you certainly won’t be wrong: but don’t become paranoid if you feel which is the word you want to use rather than that. Trust your ear with this one. However, the rule about commas for restrictive clauses and no commas for non-restrictive ones still applies.

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MYTH 9¾

The relative pronoun who should only be used for people, while that and which are reserved for things

This is somewhat related to the argument above about that and which – and it’s half right. Certainly, who should only be used for people (e.g. these are the students who will sit the exam). However, that has been used in both situations for centuries, and the following is perfectly correct: These are the players that will form our World Cup squad. (Also see Myth 5.)

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