7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t

By Mark Nichol - 3 minute read

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There are two types of grammar: Descriptive, which describes what is customary, and prescriptive grammar, which prescribes what should be. A tension between the two systems is inevitable — and healthy; it keeps us thinking about what we’re saying and writing.

Allowing mob rule at the expense of some governing of composition is madness, but a diction dictatorship is dangerous, too. As with any prescription, an overdose is contraindicated. Here are some hard pills to swallow for language mavens who require a strict adherence to rigid syntactical patterns at the expense of, well, language:

1. Never split an infinitive.
It isn’t wise to always ignore this fallacious rule against dividing the elements of the verb phrase “to (verb)” with an adverb, but to blindly follow it is to prohibit pleasing turns of phrase — one of the best known of which is from the introductory voice-over from all the Star Trek television series: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” (The original series, produced before the more recent sensitivity to gender bias, put it “no man.”)

2. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
This rule is ridiculous, to start with. If you believe it, please tell me what planet you are from. What are you striving for? Give it up. Am I getting my point across?

The stricture against closing sentences with words that describe position stems from an eighteen-century fetish for the supposed perfection of classical Latin, which allowed no split infinitives — for the excellent reason that Latin infinitives consist of single words. English, however, being a distant relative of that language, should be allowed to form its own customs.

3. Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
And why not? For an honorable tradition of doing just that exists. But some people persist in prohibiting this technique. Yet we defy them. Or we simply ignore them or laugh at them, neither of which they appreciate. Nor do they understand our attitude, though we try to convince them, and will continue to do so. So there.

The words beginning each of these sentences are conjunctions, easily recalled with the mnemonic FANBOYS. Every one is perfectly acceptable at the head of a sentence. As is obvious from the previous paragraph, however, a little goes a long way.

4. Distinguish between while and though.
Petty prescriptivists would have you reserve while for temporal usage only: “While I agree, I resist,” they say, should be revised to “Though I agree, I resist.” I freely admit that I often change while to though, and while I understand — I’m sorry, I can’t stop myself — and though I understand that it may seem pedantic, I think though reads better.

5. Distinguish between since and because.
Ditto. And ditto. I concur that indiscriminate replacement of since with because may seem persnickety, but since — ahem — because I find the latter word more pleasing, I will reserve the right to prefer it.

6. Use data only in the plural sense.
Where did they get this data? The alternative is to use datum in the singular sense, which makes you sound like a propellerhead. (Look it up, kids.) People who say “datum” get data, but they don’t get dates.

7. Use none only in the singular sense.
None of these rules, followed strictly, allow for a vernacular ease with language.

Did that sentence hurt? Did the waves stop crashing to shore? Did Earth stop spinning? If you wish to replace none with “not one” or “no one” (“Not one person admitted guilt”; “No one saw that coming”), by all means, do so, but fear not none in a plural sense.

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159 Responses to “7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t”

  • Alexander Davis

    Thank you, Sir!

  • Mortimer

    Nice one!
    It’s good to know the (supposed) rules, but clear communication is obviously better. I like the quote attributed to Winston Churchill,
    “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will
    not put.”

  • Deb

    Aren’t you cheating with 4 and 5? You claim it’s not necessary to distinguish between them – yet you say you usually do? Way to give mixed messages!

    I do agree with these though. I have had so many arguments about those split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. It seems many people are more concerned about what their second grade teacher would think of them, than what their writing actually sounds like!

  • bite me

    Where I work, there are 2 or 3 levels of people that review all of our correspondence before it can go out. This means, by the time they all agree with themselves, about style changes, where the comma goes, what should be capitalized, etc, etc, etc, … it can take months before a letter goes out (currently some have been in Limbo since August 2010). We should do like in Spanish (Castilian), and call the language “castigo”.

    I know, I didn’t put two spaces between sentences, and put the period outside the “…”. But in my personal writing I prefer common sense.

  • Rebecca

    2. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

    My high school English teachers would deduct 2-5 points from our papers if we ended a sentence with a preposition; they believed it was ‘sloppy’ writing. To this day, I will rewrite a sentence to avoid ending it in a preposition. Perhaps it’s time to let it go.

  • Keith

    hurray! thank you highlighting some of these nonsensical ‘errors’.

  • Lillian Kennedy

    Suddenly a great weight has fallen from my shoulders. Thank you so much.
    I have strained mightily to put prepositions back in the middle of sentences and felt creatively crushed by the experience. Now I’ll let them dance in their natural form… if you’re sure that I won’t be arrested?

  • Becky the Floridian

    Only you could make me laugh this early on a Monday morning, Mark. I especially giggled at numbers three and six. And for that, I say thank you. ☺

  • Jeremy Myers

    Great post! I’m writing a book, and some of these rules have been keeping me from saying what I want to say in the way I want to say it. Now I can get back to creativity.

    Thank you!

  • Roberta B.

    Good list! We speak this way. So, we already understand it. However, in #3, the diction dictator in me says it should read: “…..paragraph; however, a lttle goes a long way.”

  • Roberta B.

    ….and we make typos, too: “little”

  • Acolin

    Nice! In plain English too. Love English lessons that make writing fun, rather than clog my brain like cement.

  • ApK

    The “not ending a sentence in a preposition” rule stems the very common redundant use of a preposition, where it is simply not needed:
    “Where’s the library at?” is wrong simply because the “at” is redundant, not because it’s a preposition.

    Reminds me of a joke:

    On his first day at Harvard, a young freshman from Georgia was exploring the campus and, in his southern drawl, asked an older student:
    “Can you please tell me where the library is at?”

    The student looked down his nose and and said, in his New England accent, “At Harvard, we don’t end our sentences in a proposition.”

    The freshman replied. “Pardon me. Can you please tell me where the library is at, jackass?”

    ApK

  • ApK

    Darn the lack of an edit feature!
    That was “preposition” not “proposition” That’s very different.

    ApK

  • shirley in berkeley

    If you substitute “not one” for “none,” which is what “none” means, you haven’t broken any rules in No.7, except for failing to use the singular verb “allows.” The earth may not have stopped spinning, but sloppy writing is sloppy writing. Your noun and verb do not agree.

  • John White

    Sigh.

    So, when my editor – or more importantly, client – says, “You’ve ended this sentence with a preposition and I want you to fix it,” I should say, “But Marc Nichol posted on a blog with 49K readers that it’s time to get over it.”?

    I.
    Think.
    Not.

  • Mark Nichol

    John:

    I.
    Think.
    So.

    Diplomacy is required, but you can simply say that such-and-such a rule is no longer considered valid in most cases and you strongly believe that your edit makes the passage flow more easily, but that you of course will leave the final decision to your employer/client.

    Polite assertiveness garners respect.

  • Terry A McNeil

    Questions. What about general rules petaining to sentence structure? Must have a verb? Subect? Predicate? and so forth?

    Some of my best sentences in context and in my opinion have had just one lonely word. Standing naked. For drama. For personality. To…

    Break all the rules. And you then you may transform language into art. Any thoughts on this rebellious notioni?

  • Mark Nichol

    Terry:

    Totally. Hella. Word.

    (Just not in the annual report.)

  • Uriah

    I see what you did there:

    “This rule is ridiculous, to start with.”

    Actually I just wrote Merriam-Webster in regards to a video they have on their website using a terminal preposition and, quite honestly, I still don’t understand all the fuss. None of my teachers were successful in making me care enough about them, at any rate. It’s a ridiculous rule. And if everyone stuck so closely with every grammatical rule to ever have existed we wouldn’t have colloquial English and no change in language at all.

  • Terry A McNeil

    Mark:

    Just Checking.

    Thanks so much.

    Terry

  • Vic

    This article comes with a chip on its shoulder, but I like it. It’s very freeing. As I continue to write and write, I find it less and less important to stick to the types of rules mentioned. Not only do people not adhere to the rules when the speak, but they find it uncomfortable to read sentences that sound awkward, even if grammatically correct.

    I am writing a biography at the present and the subject is near 90 and from Brooklyn. Conversationally, he jumps from tense to tense, but this only makes his statements more real and more interesting. Can you imagine making The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire grammatically perfect?

    I think it’s best to go for communication rather than perfectionism.

  • Mark Nichol

    Deb:

    Yes, my mixed message is that while and since are valid synonyms for though and because, I often change them when I’m editing because I think it reads better, and one can do worse in being prescriptive. But you don’t have to agree in principle or in practice.

  • Mark Nichol

    Bite:

    Sounds like the bureaucracy in Brazil. But single spaces between sentences have been the default setting for a long time now. Didn’t they get the memo?

  • Mark Nichol

    Vic:

    I don’t see any chips when I look out the corner of my eye. What I do see is a lot of people who are self-conscious about fallacious “rules.” I’ve never met anybody who defends these prescriptions, but I’ve talked to and read comments from many people who have.

  • Mark Nichol

    Roberta:

    You’re confusing two sentence structures that might call for the use of however.

    This is correct as is: “As is obvious from the previous paragraph, however, a little goes a long way.”

    If the first part of a sentence — unrelated, by the way — is an independent clause rather than just an introductory phrase, a semicolon preceding however is correct: “That should be obvious from the previous paragraph; however, what is obvious to one person may not be so to another.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Uriah:

    So, somebody out there actually watches those videos? The presenters are always noiselessly yakking at me while I look a word up, but I’ve never turned up the volume to actually listen to them.

    Good points.

  • Red

    I was with you up until number seven. I was taught that none is singular because… Well, let’s use your sentence as an example. “None of these rules…” None is the word that affects the verb in that sentence. “Of these rules” is a prepositional phrase, which does NOT affect the verb. Hence “none” is always singular. No, it doesn’t sound right to the ears. But you can’t disregard rules simply because they don’t sound right to you.

  • Emma

    I agree that split infinitives are acceptable grammar, but that doesn’t change the fact that I think it weakens the action. Maybe it’s just me, but “to go boldly” sounds much more powerful than “to boldly go”.

    My high-school English teacher marked points off me for using a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence, and included the word “because” under that rule. This makes sense in sentences such as “Because I said so,” where the effect isn’t specified, but she even considered sentences like “Because this happened, this will result,” as incorrect, which always irks me. (That’s not to speak poorly of her, however, because in every other area I agree with her and think she’s a great teacher. I just disagree in a few places about what constitutes “formal” register.)

  • Birjis Amir Ali

    very well written enjoyed reading each of the examples

  • Helen Hammond

    Having just clocked up 28,000 words on a 34,000 word website copy job (yes… you heard it right… someone who wants 34,000 words on their website…) I roared at point number 6. All valid, but that one, in particular, made my day. Thank you.

  • netta

    Thank the heavens above someone has shot these rules in the head. So many writers let the grammar rules affect their creativity, when English is actually a living language and longs to be free!

    This is not advocating sloppy writing, but rather the freedom to use language to convey ideas, thoughts and feelings outside the straitjacket. (Every writer has a straitjacket.)

    Most Excellent post. Thank you.

  • Roberta B.

    Mark, I stand corrected. In #3, I misread “As is” as “It is,” which would have been an independent clause as pointed out in your clarification. Good topic!

  • Karen B.

    I actually teach a grammar refresher class for the staff at my organization. I’ve told them that the rule of not ending a sentence in a preposition is going by the wayside … IF restructuring the sentence to avoid it results in awkward phrasing. But I’ve also told them that it’s much more accepted in verbal speech than written communication. And I’ve also told them to reconsider their wording choice to avoid it. For example, instead of “the person you spoke to” try “the person you contacted” or “the person you asked”. Because there are still a lot of people out there who hold this rule as sacrosanct, and it WILL bug them!

  • Bernie K.

    As always, we need to show good judgment in terms of when and where we apply these freedoms. The first question I ask for any written assignment: Who’s the audience? If you’re going for a conversational tone, go ahead and end the sentence with a preposition. In formal communication, however, you should stick to the rules.

  • Brendan W.

    I agree with almost everything. But I would add an important caveat to 5 (Distinguish between since and because).
    Having taught journalistic writing to many (including many for whom English is not their first language), I find that this “rule” helps them avoid a great many errors of meaning.
    In a news story or feature the time-reference meaning of the word /since/ or /as/ is very easily read into uses where the causal meaning was intended. Often this is inaccurate and misleading, not just momentarily confusing.
    Most news editors will prefer /because/ to avoid such confusion, yet allow it in a column or editorial — if confusion is quite unlikely.

  • A.J. Zaethe

    This post was brilliant. Many rules in this area annoy the crap out of me. I just don’t understand, when they make sense. It isn’t like they sound horrible, in fact, they sound fine. I don’t know, but I will defy to the end!

  • Kathryn

    Shirley:
    “If you substitute “not one” for “none,” which is what “none” means, you haven’t broken any rules in No.7, except for failing to use the singular verb ‘allows.'”

    Actually. . .”none” also means “not any”–and a few other things.

    As Fowler/Gower observed:
    “It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is singular only and must at all costs be followed by singular verbs etc.; the OED explicitly states that plural construction is commoner.”
    Fowler’s Modern English Usage: Second Edition

  • Mark Nichol

    Brendan:

    Good point, and one I’m glad you mentioned because I neglected to: Since can easily be confused as opening a sentence with a temporal reference, so why not use it only in that sense?

    I also change anxious to eager when there is a positive connotation; why dilute a perfectly precise word’s cringing association? (Of course, anxiety can stem from an anticipated or hoped-for positive outcome, but still.)

  • Mimi

    Hooray for Vic’s comment! I’ll take liberties and rephrase it as, “Let’s go for GOOD COMMUNICATION rather than perfectionism.”

  • liz

    Just as artists have to learn the rules of perspective before they can break those rules to create their own style, writers should know the rules of grammar and why they exist so they can break them selectively.

  • Bite Me

    I think the way an explanatory sentence, whose thought is not completed, is abruptly ended with a period, but then the discourse is continued on in a new sentence that begins with “For” is very disruptive (and annoying) to the flow of thought. For then you start thinking “why did they do this -was it because someone said the sentence could only be so long, and this is how they break it up”? After that, you have to re-read the first sentence to see if you missed something that would have been a rational reason for the split.

  • Mark Nichol

    Bite:

    True, but for has a powerful effect in literary writing (“For God so loved the world . . .”) and should not be banished.

  • Alan Graner

    Supposedly, when an editor rearranged one of Winston Churchill’s sentences to avoid ending it in a preposition, the Prime Minister wrote back: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” (There are several variations of the statement).

    Since Churchill won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, I’ll continue to end sentences with prepositions.

  • Roger

    All interesting points, totally agree with Mortimer ie, good to know the (supposed) rules but best to communicate properly. However, all points are trivial compared to the cringe making persistence of people who should know better, inc presenters and broadcast journalists to say ‘sat’ instead of sitting. AAARGH!

  • Justin

    Oh, this is wonderful!

    I have been berated for hypocrisy for my strict adherence to, and ‘creative misuse’ of grammar. Sometimes, people say: “does grammar matter if I get the gist?” To which I reply: “Would you be happy to hear your brain surgeon say: “I think I get the gist’” just as you go under anaesthesia?” On the other hand, I keep the euphony rule of “if it sounds right, it’s OK” up my sleeve to stay out of jail.

    Oxford’s brilliant new Guide to Plain English is a must-read, rule-busting buffet on these matters.

    Above all else, I like the opening of the BBC’s style guide which says: “We should not write to make ourselves understood, but to ensure that we are not misunderstood.”

  • Justin

    PS Those upholding the rule about not ending sentences with a preposition should be reminded of Hamlet’s soliloque and “[…] the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

    Rules are the children of principles. Rules suffer bending and revision; principles do not. The English language is quirky, beautiful and unmatched in vocabulary. It should be allowed to mature with grace and dignity, but never lose its sophistication. This, I believe, is the principle.

    I propose a prize for whosoever can break ALL of the above 7 rules in one sentence.

  • Cecily

    Justin: Re the BBC’s style guide saying “We should not write to make ourselves understood, but to ensure that we are not misunderstood”, isn’t that a rather half-hearted aim?

    Fortunately, it now says:
    “It is our job to communicate clearly and effectively, to be understood without difficulty, and to offer viewers and listeners an intelligent use of language which they can enjoy. Good writing is not a luxury; it is an obligation.”

    You can read the whole style guide here; it’s a useful resource.

  • Roger

    Does the BBC style guide dictate that people write/ say sat rather than sitting eg, ” I was on the tube sat next to bla bla…”. It’s certainly not ‘an intelligent use of language which I enjoy’… as no one picked up on this when I mentioned it before I guess it doesn’t annoy anyone else. Oh well, off to the satting room for a cuppa.

  • Bite Me

    Our Branch Leader uses this as a Bible: A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Third Edition, Revised. 1955, 1967 by Kate L. Turabian. Does anyone else?

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