7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t

By Mark Nichol

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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154 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:
    http://www.bbctraining.com/pdfs/newsStyleGuide.pdf

  • 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?

  • Bill Furlow

    What was it Winston Churchill said about not ending a sentence with a preposition? To the effect of, “With such nonsense I will not upwith put.”

    Excellent piece, but I’m not sure about No. 7. I don’t see the reason to depart from “none” as singular. It just makes sense to me.

  • Owen

    There is a rule, not on this list, that I’d like to see more people adhere to. Namely, the distinction between “less” and “fewer”. I hear phrases such as “less people”, “less engineers”, “less reviewers” what feels like all the time, and it drives me up a tree.

    Am I alone in this, or do the rest of you run into similar cringe-inducing uses of “less” for items that can be counted and therefore warrant “fewer”?

  • Owen

    Ok, just found the post from 2007 on less / fewer:

    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/lessfewer-numberamount-still-salvageable/

    Count me in the group that observes this rule and finds it grating when it’s not observed.

  • Cecily

    Bill: No, Churchill almost certainly didn’t say “up with which I will not put”, despite the story’s persistence (including in this very discussion).

    See Language Log for a debunking: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001702.html

    And whatever you do, don’t mention it on any of Geoff Pullum’s Language Log posts:
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2683

  • Mortimer

    @ Cecily

    Somebody said it. The important point is what it illustrates/ridicules. Whether it was Churchill or not, is of secondary importance on a forum of this nature.

  • Bill Furlow

    Owen, You can put me down as one who hears fingernails on the chalkboard (Did Mark Twain originally say that?) when “less” is used when it should be “fewer.” A great example I cite to help folks understand the rule actually came from a razor commercial years ago. It promised “fewer strokes, less irritation.”

  • Shannon

    I’d have to disagree with #7, but considering I minored in Latin and now work as a scientific editor, I think I can be forgiven for that. 🙂

  • Wes Morgan

    The proper use of language is a hallmark not of erudition or perceived superiority, but of mental discipline. I consider the “sloppy” use of language indicative of an undisciplined mind.

    Of course, one does not apply a rule such as this to all circumstances. I think it obvious that our expectations are dependent upon the settings in which our conversations take place. One does not expect to hear the same “level” of language in a casual environment that one would expect in a business meeting or courtroom proceeding.

    Thus, my tolerance for the undisciplined use of language is inversely proportional to the importance of the message being conveyed and/or the perceived importance of the speaker. If I am participating in an exchange with a CEO/CIO or other executive, for example, I expect to hear (or read) language that is both precise and grammatically correct; a brainstorming exchange with technical staff, on the other hand, is likely to be far more vernacular in many ways – and I’m comfortable with both.

  • Sam

    @bite me

    Two spaces are not required, nor preferred when using proportional type as that on a computer. It was used on fixed type devices like typewriters to enhance ease of readability. It served a clear, valid purpose when it was in use and people that didn’t use it were doing a disservice to the reader.

    There should be no comma after the last “etc” in your post; just the ellipses. Periods and other punctuation should fall inside the quotation marks. I’m not entirely sure how you’ve come to the conclusion that doing otherwise is “common sense.”

  • Tom Williams

    I sometimes amuse myself trying to end a sentence with as many prepositions as possible. My personal best is four. A man registers at a hotel and the clerk says “Take the suitcase you came in with on up.”

  • Cecily

    Sam, where one places periods (full stops) and other punctuation in relation to quotation marks depends on where you or your readers are.

    Your rule is true for AmE (and possibly elsewhere, though I think not), but it is incorrect for BrE. In BrE, you only put punctuation inside quotes if it forms part of the quote (as with brackets).

  • Cecily

    Tom, I can’t take credit for this, but it may amuse you and provide a new challenge for you. It has at least 5 terminal prepositions (although they may not all be used as prepositions here).

    A young boy is sick in bed and asks his mother to read to him. She comes upstairs with a book about Australia that apparently displeases him. He throws it across the room and yells ‘What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of about Down Under up for?’

  • Tom Williams

    @Cecily
    Wonderful! Even if you you remove “about Down Under” it still beats my attempt by one preposition.

  • Rich

    Done sparingly, breaking any of these rules can add both clarity and impact to prose. Taken to an extreme, ignoring the rules robs writing of the very same.

    Blind adherence to grammar guidelines is equally damaging to the craft.

    Good writing is a balancing act. After all, the best thing about knowing the rules is knowing when — and, frankly, how — to break them.

  • Elizabeth Fine

    As a college student who has an obsessive disorder with punctuation and grammar, I appreciate this post! I was always taught that sentences must NOT end with prepositions. This eases the pain a little; however, I’m not sure I can let it go yet!

  • Stephanie Stephens

    I laughed and I cried. As a journalist/copywriter/broadcaster, I quake with fear when I imagine myself committing a grave error.
    AND, my mom and aunt were English profs and the dinner table conversation inevitably included a correction sent my way.

    I can eat without indigestion now.

  • Ken Cole

    Mark–

    If I may, let me respond point by point.

    1) Not a grammatical rule, you’re right. A distinctly modest use of split infinitives is fine. I used to be slavish about this point but have learned otherwise over the years. As you say, a split infinitive can be a lazy way not to write a better sentence.
    2) Poet Alexander Pope (18th century) started the injunction against prepositions at the end of sentences. It is niggling, but ending a sentence with a preposition is not always good rhetoric, either, just because it feels natural, like talking. Most of us grew up with less than stellar speech exemplars so what feels “natural” is not the best guide. Some slavish teachers may have elevated the “error” to grammar, but it never really was, even for Pope. The problem is rhetorical.
    3) Conjunctions. A bit of a stalking horse of a point here. The last time someone tried to teach this one was 45 years ago. I know. I was there. But starting paragraphs with a conjunction is not usually wise unless you are a skilled writer aiming for a very specific effect. Conjunctions connect one piece to another. Doing so at the beginning of a paragraph—when a paragraph break by its very nature is a break—doesn’t leave much to be connected. Still, never say “never.”
    4) and 5) The point here misses the point. With “while” and “though” and with “since” and “because,” the issue isn’t grammar but precision. You argue, in essence, for imprecision. Imprecision is not a good argument for good writers; the words work best when their root meaning or best metaphorical sense shines through. “Since” makes a very weak “because” in almost every instance. Another stalking horse.
    6) On this one you make your own rule and laugh off the need for authority to do so. In fact, by your own logic because propeller heads now rule the global business universe and do get all the great trophy wives, we ought to be using it in the plural. “Data” is plural. Simple–or not, as you point out, but it bears paying attention to (see point 2 above).
    7) No self-respecting college handbook on grammar defends “none” as exclusively singular. I’m not certain one ever has. Another stalking horse.

    Why all those horses?

  • Dale

    Sam, it’s people “who”.

  • Dale

    I forgot to mention that if rules are ignored, chaos in languge would ensue. We would soon be living the Tower of Babel.

  • venqax

    Great toic, though I must say I thought #s 1 and 2 were long known-deceased. I don’t even recall learning in school that those rules were absolute, and I ain’t no youngster.

    I’m still a grump on #6. When I was in graduate school, the knowledge that the word data was plural– “these data show this”, “the data are in regarding your test”– was something of a shibboleth for who was a “serious” person and who wasn’t, and that has stuck. “Media” used as a singular still makes me put a little black dot by the speakers name in my head too! Some snobberies are resilient, and you never know who might be “keeping score”, LOL.

    I’m not completely unadaptable, though. I wish “whom” would disappear and “I wish I were” was was instead.

  • Adam iwritereadrate

    Really useful tips, will retweet.

    All the best

    Adam
    iWriteReadRate.com

  • venqax

    Don’t know where the following post comes from (somewhere on this forum– copied it for later answer, now can’t find it!). It illustrates, quite accidently, even– dare I say– ironically, the point that splitting infinitives is sometimes not only OK, but PREFERABLE.
    ——————————————-
    Poster: She says: “to automatically start the coffee making process…” How much better to have written, “to start the automatic coffee-making process.” And, yes, a hyphen does belong between “coffee” and “making.”
    Infinitives in all vernaculars of English are the root of the verb. The word “to” (itself of many different uses, including as a preposition; context prevails) is inextricably connected to the root word and no adverb should ever be inserted between them.
    ———————————————

    Of course, the first and second iterations of the sentence do NOT convvey the same message, so, ipso facto, one is not “better” than the other. In the first case, she is starting the coffee-maker (which could well be an ancient perking device for all we know) in an “automatic” manner, i.e, without consciously thinking about it, etc.

    In the second, she is setting a coffee-maker which is itself automatic to some extent (not to the extent of being self-starting, I guess, but it does SOMETHING she thinks is automatic).

  • Anonymous

    ‘Give it up.’ is not an example of using a preposition at the end of a sentence, because ‘up’ is an adverb. I think ‘Am I getting my point across?’ is not, either, although I am not sure.

  • Ari

    Can you confrim the ff: the use of “data” whether used in the singular or the plural also depends on whether the writer is a researcher working in either the qualitative (the data is…) or quantitative (the data are…) paradigm.

  • Emily

    Brilliant! Yes, there are rules in writing for a reason — and it’s important to know them. However, after years of mastering the language, you learn what sounds good and what doesn’t. And sometimes, that involves ending a sentence with a preposition.

  • Non-native English speaker

    I think that the reason that the sentence “None of these rules, followed strictly, allow for …” works so well is that the “thougth subject” changes from singular (none) to plural (these rules). Compare to this example: “We want as few visitors as possible. One is enough. Indeed, none are even better.” Here, to me, “none is” sounds much better. Admittedly, in this example I tried to isolate “none” from all plural words.

  • I.ken Seymour

    Data is plural, media is plural and for thet matter news is plural. None is singular it means not one. and on another topic, Chairman isnot gender related – it means manager of the chair.

  • boldly going nowhere

    “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”

    Never split an infinitive… unless it’s “to blindly follow”?

  • The Nerdy Nurse

    OH Gosh! Mrs. Barnette would surely be rolling over in her grave is she had a kindle in that coffin of hers!
    She would never let these fly on any of my 6th grade papers!

  • Peter

    Am I alone in this, or do the rest of you run into similar cringe-inducing uses of “less” for items that can be counted and therefore warrant “fewer”?

    You’re not alone, but your claim that there needs to be a distinction deserves to be on this list (i.e., you are in error).

    Two spaces are not required, nor preferred when using proportional type as that on a computer. It was used on fixed type devices like typewriters to enhance ease of readability. It served a clear, valid purpose when it was in use and people that didn’t use it were doing a disservice to the reader.

    No it wasn’t, and no it didn’t. I don’t know how double-spacing between sentences came about, but it’s far worse in monospaced text (typewriter) than in proportional type. However, traditionally, properly typeset text (at least in fonts designed for books) should have “stretchier” space between sentences (not wider, just stretchier, so when a line of text needs to be adjusted to fit the margins, spaces between sentences get wider than spaces between words…or if it needs to be compressed, interword spaces compress more than intersentence spaces). But when people started using computers to do typesetting, the software they used wasn’t very good and couldn’t cope with many of the things typesetters did, so you don’t see this much nowadays — “modern” typesetting is mostly kind of primitive (computer-based typesetting only became reasonable when Don Knuth wrote TeX in the late ’70s, which was the only typesetter that could do good line breaking for a couple of decades, until Adobe InDesign (using the TeX algorithm). But InDesign is really designed for magazines, not books; the former tend to use narrower fonts and columns, and don’t need stretchier spacing between sentences; InDesign is still deficient in that area (among others).)

    Periods and other punctuation should fall inside the quotation marks. I’m not entirely sure how you’ve come to the conclusion that doing otherwise is “common sense.”

    Well, it is, when the punctuation isn’t part of the quotation! Putting commas and periods that don’t belong in the quotation inside the quotation marks is a typesetting tradition arising from aesthetics, not logic. (And the aesthetic consideration doesn’t apply to handwriting or typewriters, and may not even apply to typeset material using modern techniques.)

  • venqax

    Where did they get this data? The alternative is to use datum in the singular sense, which makes you sound like a propellerhead.

    No, the alternative is to say “Where did you get these data?”. You don’t have to resort to a propellerism like datum. Just like other plural nouns, in practice, “these cattle, these people-“- because the data you are referring to are almost always a data *set*, not just a single piece of information.

    Where a different and, IMO, WORSE problem happens, is when people referring to a discrete bit as you’re alluding to would say, “Where did you get this statistic?”. AHHH!! The nails, the blackboard….I don’t know the date when any single piece of information became “a statistic”, but it was one of the blackest of days for English, civilization, and mankind. There is where the word datum actually BELONGS and never gets any air-time at all.

  • Bahati Bohlale

    What about “used to” to describe something one did in the past? I don’t understand the origin of this seemingly misappropriation of words. I USED TO say it all the time, but I feel incorrect when I say it now. I do not use it in writing.

  • Bahati Bohlale

    P.S. I will be so excited not to have to worry about not ending a sentence in a preposition, if what you say is true! What I do now is write the preposition at the end of the sentence anyway, and then add, in parentheses, (Never end a sentence in a preposition!)

    I have no idea about my over use of commas.

  • Bahati Bohlale

    overuse

  • venqax

    @ Bahati: Your question about “used to” is a good one. It is an idiom, certainly, and a very common one. Like many idiomatic expressions it really doesn’t seem to make much sense. when taken apart. AFAIK it is perfectly standard in spoken Gen American. Wouldn’t pass muster in formal writing, tho.

  • venqax

    premature submition!

    The idiom also has 2 common and distinct meanings: To refer to something in the past, as you say, e.g., “I used to come here all the time”, and also to be adjusted or accustomeed to something, as in, “I used to hate spam, but now I am used to it.”

  • Chuck Barnard

    In dialog, anything goes–few people in reality bother with formal English in speech. In part because English sentences can be written in any word order and very often be understood. Also, real people often use the wrong word in conversation which seldom matters because in conversation the context may clue you, or you can ask.

    Things written from different POVs may have different language use even in the no-spoken text.

  • Greg

    Um – whoever this “Bite-Me” person (February 7th) is – they need to learn to write and speak properly. That reply was fraught with errors, and was an outright embarrassment. Then again I guess this is pretty much what we ought to expect from someone who uses such a low class nom-de-plum.

  • Ben

    Greg, if you’re going to be facetious, you should at least endeavour to avoid basic errors of consistency. ‘Bite Me’ is a he or she, but ‘they’ refers to a plural.

    Always heed Matthew’s warning:

    “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye”

    –especially when dealing with grammar!

  • ISG

    Interesting comments.
    I have always been interested in the matter of ending a sentence with a preposition. Sometimes the preposition at the end of a sentence is quite correct, because it’s not really a preposition at all, but a sort of appendage to the verb, a reminder of our Anglo-Saxon linguistic heritage. If you are a German scholar, you will know the difference between a separable verb and an inseparable verb. It’s like that. Churchill satirised this brilliantly by consciously using a quasi-inseparable verb (“to put up with”) as if it were a verb + a preposition. One of my favourite quotes!
    A friend of mine once said “A preposition is a word you should never end a sentence with.”

  • Warsaw Will

    @Ben
    I agree with you about Greg’s facetiousness (actually I’d say outright snobbery), but not about his use of singular they, which for many people is absolutely correct here, as he doesn’t know Bite-me’s gender.

    There is rather a good post about this on this very website, just put singular they into the website search box. What’s more in a poll on that post, the vast majority of voters agreed that singular they is the best solution in these circumstances.

  • Kenneth

    What should I do if I am dealing with someone who claims their area of expertise is in English, writing and editing but their grammar is filled with horrendous sentence structuring, typos, poor comprehension and other horrible grammatical errors?

  • Mark Nichol

    Kenneth:

    Your description of your unfortunate situation is vague. If you are reviewing or editing someone else’s work, all I can advise you is to be respectful but candid. If it’s a client who takes umbrage at your evaluation, invite them to seek a second opinion — or to hire another editor. If it’s a friend or associate, that’s more difficult, because you have a personal relationship with that person — but you must still be honest.

    A writer who seeks a frank assessment and sincerely wants their work to be the best it can be must accept a critique with good grace. If they cannot do so, they should not seek assistance. They are welcome to self-publish and accept full responsibility for the publication’s failure. If they wish to publish in a mediated manner, with editorial oversight, they must expect, and accept, revisions. And if they cannot admit that they are not as skilled as they thought they were, they have no business being a writer.

  • Kenneth

    Mark

    The person is neither a friend nor an associate. My situation is this. This kid, I call him a kid because he is 10 years younger than I am, calls me an idiot and says I have poor comprehension skills. He goes on and says he is an Editor and that his job as Editor is to correct the mistakes people make.

    While he is saying this and other replies that he makes, he himself makes spelling errors, typos, punctuation errors and exhibits poor sentence structuring. I bring them up to him and his only response was it’s YouTube, he doesn’t care about his spelling or any other error he makes.

  • Yoly

    I’m with Shirley from Berkeley on #7, as the tense made me, er, tense. With gritted teeth, even. Except, as she admonished your sloppy writing, she didn’t capitalize her name or city. Ah well.

    I might add, that usage can depend somewhat on the type of writing one is doing. For example, I see a lot of sentences beginning with conjunctions in fiction–presumably to create shorter, easier-to-read sentences–where a more formal (and correct) style would normally be used in non-fiction. Always consider the reader.

    Nice site, BTW.

  • Brian Davison

    Roger, I hope this can help – sorry you’ve waited so long! I come from the north of England where the incorrect “he was sat” instead of “he was sitting” is used extensively. I have not read this in any grammar book but I believe there is a subtle difference in meaning – a difference recognised in some other languages. “He was sitting by the window” implies he was there for quite a time (eg “… throughout the seminar”). “He was sat by the window when he saw a man break into his car” implies he was by the window briefly.

  • Jordan

    Dear Bite Me,

    It was actually punctuationally correct to put the period outside of the quotations because there was only one word, and not a full sentence, inside of them.

  • Robert

    Rules are not imposed, they are discovered. That’s the prescriptivists’ problem, they are going to be wrong sooner or later. Language change doesn’t result in a debased language – Spanish, French and Italian are not debased forms of Latin. “They” can be singular or plural, it creates no confusion. Shakespeare and the King James Bible used a singular “they”, were they wrong? The word “you” used to be a plural, the language changed. That some teachers will deduct points for not following certain outdated rules doesn’t mean those rules are correct. It is how language is actually used that determines what is correct and what isn’t correct.

  • venqax

    Ben and Warsaw Will: I think you need to look up the definition of *facetious*. It means, evidently, about the opposite of what you seem to think it does. Greg was not being at all facetious from what I see, but quite directly critical.

    Brian Davidson: In American English the two statements would have unique meanings, too. “He was sitting by the window” would indicate that someone was seated next to the window, presumably of their own free will.” “He was sat by the window” would be a rather odd construction that would indicate the “he” was put there by someone or something, akin to how one might plunk down a houseplant.

  • danielicious

    The simple fact that many people do not remember the rules of the language which they speak is no cause for abandoning those same rules. A philosophical equivalent to this pathetic argument for grammatical incompetence would be “if at first you don’t succeed, set your standards lower”. Although the current rules of English are themselves warped interpretations of the language’s ancestors, failure to abide by current procedure does not equate to evolution; laziness does not warrant validation of one’s poor performance.

    im so sry u feel this way abt gramatical structer n that the way most ppl should b recognized as current valid rules of speech n writing. if 90pcnt of the ppl blieve kidz shoud b allowed to drink booze, does that make it a good idea?

  • Todd

    I have been a computer engineer for many years (hence a slightly different way of looking at things than the average person), and one thing I have learned is that there is never a datum, even at the quantum level.

    A sentence is a collection of words.

    A word is a collection of letters.

    A letter is a collection of pixels on the screen, or it can be viewed as a one-byte code within the computer.

    A byte is a collection of bits.

    Now you might say that a single binary bit is a datum, however that bit is stored in an electronic circuit comprised of multiple biased silicon junctions, which could be further described using hundreds of physical, electrical, and magnetic properties. On a disk platter, it is stored as a fuzzy area comprised of millions of magnetic alignments of intensities that vary according to the distance from the center of the write magnet as it travelled across the platter. In transit, a bit is a complex waveform in the general shape of a square wave, but affected in myriad ways by many different types of distortion. An in-depth analysis of that waveform would reveal a volume of characteristics that would go on for as long as someone cared to pursue it.

    I could go on. My point is that any datum is subject to endless unraveling all the way down into the quantum world where science shows us that not even a total vacuum is empty or static of characteristics.

    From my perspective, a datum is a subjective definition directly related to individual preferences. Someone out there may view this whole web site as a datum in the sense of how much disk space it takes up or how much bandwidth it consumes. If you are reading this, then you view this web site as data.

    Therefore, and you can quote me on this, “One person’s datum is another person’s data. Always.”

    Signed, Mr. Propellerhead

  • Wanda

    I am saving this post for the sheer entertainment value (because I agree with every point). I laughed through the entire thing. Thanks!

  • Professor1940

    When writing I follow most the rules of writing proper English. However, if I am trying to make a point, or a precise thought, I am so happy that the English language allows me to do so.

    The written language should be an enjoyable thing to write and read. English language nerds do not make me happy.

    English of the 15th-18th century is a beautiful thing. Thank God we don’t use it anymore.

  • venqax

    Todd: My point is that any datum is subject to endless unraveling all the way down into the quantum world where science shows us that not even a total vacuum is empty or static of characteristics.

    Well, yes and no. How’s that for proving your point? If you are describing physical phenomena, your breakdown makes sense. For concepts, it is similar, but different. A word is a concept, an abstract verbal and written symbol or depiction of a “unit” of language. A letter is a physical symbol that represents a sound, or a component of written language, specifically. You describe not a word or a letter, but the mechanics of how written symbols are displayed electronically.

    Yes, every thing can be broken down, reduced infinitely. But the concept of something absolute or irreduceable still exists. Take your example: On one hand, a total vacuum IS, in fact empty of characteristics. By definition, that is what a vacuum IS. It may be equally true that no total vacuum exists in physical reality. So, to grammar. Datum vs. data. The fact that one is treated as singular and one as plural in the grammatical sense is the relevant question. Singular and plural are grammatical concepts in that case. Similarly, *gods* is the grammatical plural of god, regardless how staunchly monotheistic one’s religious beliefs– or even the ultimate truth of the matter– may be.

  • Thomas Sharkey

    Never end a sentence with a preposition.

    So I called out to this guy from my car, “Excuse me, sir, could name a decent cafe here I could go to?”

    He answered, “Around here, we don’t end a sentence with an infinitive.”

    So I said, “My apologies, sir. So, can you tell me of a decent cafe I could go to, asshole?”

  • Thomas Sharkey

    English is the most versatile language in the world.

    German is the mostwidely used (another use of used) language in Europe.

    I find language fascinating, so many different ones, but where would we be without the written word, wether it be roman or asian or etc. etc..

    Think about it.

    No two writers write the same; no two readers “read” the same and to top it all – everybody is entitled to an opinion – and I have never come across two identicle ones yet.

    We humans are versatile and can sometimes be a pain in the… …what was that word?

    To boldly go and write what no man or woman has ever written before should be your authoritic goal in life.

    Sod the grammar nazis, write how you feel, write what you want.

  • Thomas Sharkey

    4 and 5. The choice should not be based on opinion, but context.

    ‘The less said, the better’, or: ‘The fewer said, the better.’?

    Brian Davison.

    The correct term is: “He was seated by the window…”

    He sat…

    He was sitting…

    He sits…

    He seated…

    And to all of you, ‘Nobody is perfect, except maybe in their imperfection’.

    Somebody once said: “Never open a paragraph with dialogue”.

    Bo**ocks.

  • venqax

    Thomas Sharkey: Great examples of what might, in fact, convey the opposite of what you intend. Your writing is so badly put together, assembled like train wreck is how I “feel”, never mind simply illiterate (indenticle? Really?) that what you are trying specifically to say is murky at best. But, OTOH, and perhaps ironically, it communicates exceedingly well that you are a horrible writer and probably a painful thinker as well. That is a message you might not want to send.

  • I love grammar

    My high school might have been different, but we were taught that there is formal and informal communication. If I am writing a document for work, I am going to write more formally than I would writing an email to a friend.

    The distinction also exists in verbal communication. I venture that you would speak to the CEO of your company differently than you would to a long time friend. That may not be true, judging from some of the comments.

    The key is to know the context of the communication. If you add the prefix “When writing a formal letter,” to all the rules above, then they all still apply. With the prefix of “When writing a blog,” there exists a little more leeway on the rules.

  • venqax

    @I love grammar: “Though” I agree about the distinction between formal and informal writing, I would disagree that all of the supposed rules above are appropriate even in the former case. Numbers 1 & 2, e.g., I would argue have never been legitimate rules for English and observing them with rigidity can be downright destructive to communication. Number 3, though I’m not familiar with its origins, also stands out as undeserving of *rule* status, and is better considered a cautionary statement to avoid coming across as too informal in some contexts.

  • John Wilson

    I’ll give you numbers one through three, but four and five are sensible and six and seven cause me to cringe if used in my presence.

    Improper use of “was” instead of “were” in the subjunctive (as mentioned in the comments above) is another of these, as is the use of “loan” as a verb when the perfectly-good “lend” exists for this purpose.

  • venqax

    @John Wilson: What do you mean by

    “Improper use of “was” instead of were in the subjunctive (as mentioned in the comments above) is another of these, as is the use of loan as a verb when the perfectly-good “lend” exists for this purpose.”

    The title of the post is 7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t. So Identifyaing the above as “another of these” I take it you are saying that the subjunctinve was and loan for lend are NOT grammatical errors, but are erroneously cited as such?

  • Robin

    Can someone please explain why I should avoid writing in the Passive voice? If I am observing a scene, writing what is happening to the actors in that scene, then how do I avoid writing about it in the Passive voice?

  • Floris

    I don’t know where to start; I’ll just offer a few thoughts:
    Sloppy grammar or spelling is an indication of sloppy thinking. “Everybody does it” is a poor excuse.
    If you are going to use a fancy expression, get it right: “Nom de plum” should be “nom de plume” (French: feather, and hence, pen; not English: fruit).
    Datum is Latin for “given”. Data is the plural. Use “dataset” instead of “data” if you don’t want to sound like a propellerhead, yet don’t want to break any grammar rules.
    I attempt not to split my infinitives, and rarely end my sentences with prepositions (Latin: “pre: before, positum: placed”). But as an earlier comment noted: many of these rules are stylistic rather than grammatical; and clarity of expression has to take precedence over pedantic adherence to rules. Keep your audience in mind. Be thankful that you are able read and write, and try to maintain the highest standards that you can.

    At my local grocery, they have a rapid checkout lane with a sign “15 items or fewer”. This makes me happy. Little things please little minds.

    If anyone wants to point out mistakes in my English, please go ahead. It’s my third language, and I’m always happy to learn (although I frequently find that people who learned English as a second / third language know more about grammar than native speakers).

  • venqax

    Robin: There is no reason why the passive voice cannot be written in by you. It just sounds awkward and stilted at times when it is not necessary. And that is most of the time. So far as your example, tho, of describing actors in a scene, I don’t see how the passive voice would be relevant.??

  • K Williams

    What you don’t mention about points 4 & 5, is that the disputed words have different meanings. “While” means “As long as”, and “though” means “despite the fact that”. Likewise, “since” means that something has occurred to change the situation; it’s not simply another word for “because”.

    I agree that grammar rules are in constant flux, but that doesn’t mean word meanings can be ignored. That sort of thing leads to people claiming that “literally” and “metaphorically” are interchangeable, as I saw in a recent blog. Scary but true.

    My attitude towards the descriptive/prescriptive debate is that you can break the rules much more effectively when you know what they are, and that the most important thing is to be clearly understood.

    /essay

  • Hazel

    I agree that one should not be restricted by certain grammar rules when trying to express ones thoughts creatively. However, one of the things that my Composition professor told me at university was that once you have understood the basic rules, and have become proficient at using them, you can venture out by bending those rules, so as to convey your point or mood.

    I believe that it is important to teach students these basic rules (especially if you are an ESL teacher), so that they can understand the foundation. While your examples of using conjunctions at the beginning a sentence were acceptable, this example is not: “If you have breakfast, you must chew your food. So your brain can become active. And you can control your feelings.” There is a sense of choppiness and awkwardness about these ‘sentences’.

    The student writer of the above example has most likely seen articles using “and” and other conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence. However, they do not fully understand the purpose and best usage of the conjunction, which they will begin to understand fully when they practice using conjunctions in their most basic context.

    As with most things, it is important to understand the rule and apply the technique, upon which you will later be able to build and expand.

  • Oh Blah Dee Blah Dah

    RE: 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.

    REPLY: Most TV, video, and print journalists use “data” and “datum” incorrectly and, unfortunately, the abundant variety of media and their pervasiveness constantly reinforce the incorrect use of these words. My work involves using “data” and “datum” frequently in speaking and writing. Here are the correct ways to use these words that I have found to make dialogue or a print article accurate and properly understood.

    The word “data” is PLURAL and “datum” is SINGULAR. To verify use of the correct word, simply replace it with another noun. Oftentimes, I use “vehicle.”

    Here are the two rules:
    1. data = plural = vehicleS
    2. datum = singular = vehicle

    Examples of CORRECT Usage:
    1. The data ARE large. [confirmation: The vehicleS ARE large.]

    2. One datum IS small. [confirmation: One vehicle IS small.]

    3. Three data ARE missing. [confirmation: Three vehicleS are missing.]

    4. The experiment produced many datum points. [confirmation: The experiment produced many “vehicle” points.] or [confirmation: The experiment produced many “vehicle” crashes.] Note: “points” is the plural noun and “datum” is the adjective of “points.” It is incorrect to say: “The experiment produced many vehicleS crashes.” It is correct to say, “The experiment produced many vehicle crashes.” (The adjective “vehicle” must be singular.)

    5. Five “datum” points ARE missing. [confirmation: Five “vehicle” points ARE missing.] or [Five “vehicle” engines ARE missing.] Note: The words “Five” and “points” are plural nouns and “datum” is the adjective of “points.” Despite what is said on TV or printed in financial and scientific papers, it is incorrect to say, “DATA points ARE missing.” That would be like saying, “VehicleS engines ARE missing.” In this sentence, “vehicleS” is the adjective of the plural noun “engines” and, therefore, the correct adjectives to use in these examples are “vehicle” and “datum,” singular words. The correct examples are: “Five vehicle engineS ARE missing.” and “Five datum points ARE missing.”

    Examples of WRONG Usage:
    1. The “data” IS large. [Wrong, because: “The vehicleS is large.” is improper usage.] Note: The word “vehicleS” is a plural noun and requires “are,” a plural verb. Therefore, since “data” is a plural word, it requires “are,” a plural verb.

    2. One “data” point IS small. [Incorrect, because: “One vehicleS point IS small.” is improper usage.] Note: The noun is example is the word “One,” and “One” requires the singular verb “IS.” The word “point” is singular and requires the singular adjective “datum.” Therefore, the singular words “datum” and “vehicle” are the correct words to use in this example. The correct usage is: “One datum point IS small.” and “One vehicle engine is small.”

    3. Three “data” IS missing. [Wrong, because: “Three vehicleS IS missing.” is improper usage.] Note: The nouns “Three” and “data” are plural. Therefore, the plural word “ARE” is the correct verb to use with “Three” and “data,” plural nouns. The correct usage is, “Three data ARE missing.”

    4. This data indicates a change has occurred. [Wrong, because: “This vehicleS indicates a change has occurred.” is improper usage.] Note: “data” is plural, so “These” is required instead of “This” and a plural noun requires a singular verb: “indicate.” The correct usage is “THESE data INDICATE a change has occurred.”

  • venqax

    If you have breakfast, you must chew your food. So your brain can become active. And you can control your feelings.

    Well, those aren’t so much examples of why conjunctions shouldn’t begin sentences as of why some things aren’t really sentences at all. It is more of a punctuation problem: don’t use a period where a comma is called for. Or where nothing is called for. I mean, or where nothing is called for. Make that, or for where nothing is called. Don’t use a period where a comma is that for which is called, or for which nothing is called. hmmm….

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    When writing a dialogue, can you use italics and quotation marks together? I was criticized for doing this in one of my books. What is your opinion.

  • Mark Nichol

    Vivienne:

    You were criticized because you were employing two styles for one function. The default setting for indicating spoken dialogue is quotation marks. Italics are more appropriate for unspoken and indirect dialogue.

  • Rachel

    As an aside, Star Trek’s use of “no one” instead of “no man” is technically an incorrect understanding of the word “man.” In the Star Trek universe, there are many races of thinking creatures besides human beings.

    From a purely terrestrial point of view, the phrase “no man” is now frequently taken as exclusive towards women, but from the perspective of the Star Trek universe, the phrase “no man” more properly means “no human being,” and accurately describes the situations the humans aboard the Enterprise frequently face (seeking out new life and new civilizations, where humans have not gone before, but where other thinking creatures clearly have). Thus the phrase “no one” in fact turns out to be rather exclusive and derogatory towards non-human races.

    Apparently Star Fleet still needs to learn a thing or two about political correctness. 😉

  • Mark Nichol

    Rachel:

    Fascinating.

    Your analysis of the validity of the phrase “no man” in the introductory voiceover of the original Star Trek series is logical. However, man is still exclusionary. It would have been inclusionary, yet less elegant, to say, “no human.”

    “No one” is indeed an inadvertently arrogant failed attempt to be non-gender specific. In seeking to be fair to women, later iterations of Star Trek offended all nonhuman spacefaring races. Sigh.

  • venqax

    Come on, you have to be kidding. Man, as in mankind, used in the Star Trek context is “exclusionary”? Because even tho man and his Ascent and Journey and Giant Leap has meant humans in general, for EONS it suddenly doesn’t anymore because some little group of oversensitive sobsisters decide it’s Oldspeak? You just don’t expect that kind of thing in serious circles nowadays. The language shouldn’t be a political instrument in a democratic country. Do we really want to keep going down that road?

  • Patti Hale

    Ha! So glad you see these rules disputed! Free at last!

  • Ray

    @venqax: Amen….
    Waited a long, long time for someone to even allude to the collective use of that word.
    Ever since they first changed that inspiring statement about us as a people, even it was in fantasy land.

  • Gabrielle

    When I correct the use of passive voice to active, mostly but not always it succeeds in adding sparkle to what otherwise sounds flat and dull. I’ve become obsessed and waste so much time substituting passive voice to active when what I have written sounded ok in the first place.

  • Judy

    I didn’t have the time to read all the comments, so voluminous were they, that I don’t know if my comment has been put forth or not. Method, arena, style, audience must all be taken into account. You would write one way in fiction where the vernacular takes presidence. Buisness writing demands another style of use, general essays, sicnetific or educations papers yet another layer of standards must be observed. Unfortunately, use of common English has been so degraded that some higher standard must be followed, dare I say, demanded. With the advent of texting and tweeting, the ture beauty of our language is being lost. The newer generation cannot even read books like Little Women or Ivanhoe because the style of writing is so much higher than what is being used and taught today. Such a shame.

  • Lesa

    For the love of Christ, I beg you all, PLEASE do not ignore a single rule we have left! Our entire language has become so disrespected it saddens me. If for no other reason than to go down fighting, please treasure and pass on any remnants of grammatical precision we can scrape from the bottom of the barrel!

  • venqax

    Lesa:

    Speaking for myself, I don’t advocate abandoning rules just because poor usage has become popular. So, e.g., I DO think that the exclusively plural use of data is not expendable. To say “date is” IS an error.

    OTOH, the first 3 on this list are arbitrary prescriptions that were never valid rules for English in the first place. Hence, “Error That Aren’t”. That is a different matter.

  • Thaillen

    The precision with which we write, and the rules that are followed in each context, must be determined within the confines of the writing itself. If I am writing fiction, and find it necessary to give a character’s speech a certain accent or pattern, it is acceptable. If I am writing a technical manual, it is most certainly incorrect. If I am writing a journalism article, it may be correct depending on the intent of the quote and what I wish to convey in the article.

    Language, grammar, and its proper use is determined through the ability of the communication to accurately transfer meaning and intent, not through the level of social acceptability or ease of use. Education must continue to hold to the proper rules and strictures of the english language. This is not to discourage deviation from those rules, but to encourage the continued integrity of the English language as a whole.

    Some of these rules in this article are indeed dispensible dependant on context, however others should be strictly enforced.

    Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If we don’t fight to maintain structure, language will degrade.

  • venqax

    Or does is “degradate”? LOL. Which ones do you think are dispensible which one’s are not. I suppose that is the real question for this post.

  • Mark Nichol

    Venquax:

    None of the grammatical errors listed is a grammatical error, but I reserve the right to replace while with though and since with because.

  • venqax

    Fair enough. I use, “huh?” and “wha’?” interchangeably, LOL! But then I’ll change “between” to “betwixt” and “near” to “nigh” just to be difficult! Obviously, I am beloved by all.

  • venqax

    Thaillen: “Some of these rules in this article are indeed dispensible dependant on context, however others should be strictly enforced.”

    So which do you think are which?

  • Rod

    3. Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
    Examine the text from “3” with conjunctions removed. It still makes perfect sense, so your use of conjunctions is totally redundant,
    Original text
    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.

    Corrected text with redundancies removed.
    Why not? An honorable tradition of doing just that exists. Some people persist in prohibiting this technique. We defy them. We simply ignore them or laugh at them, and they appreciate neither of these activities. They do not understand our attitude, though we try to convince them, and will continue to do so. So there!

    The only one I had difficulty with was “Nor do they understand” and, as this “Nor” was not properly connected with a prior “neither” anyway.

  • venqax

    But I think the bigger point is that saying, “And why not?” Isn’t wrong. There is no legitimate rule of grammar that says categorically one cannot begin a sentence with a conjunction. There may have been such a rule in Latin, for example. But that has nothing to do with English. No one says that it is always a good idea to do so. Or that it is necessary to do so. But there is nothing wrong with doing it when it seems stylistically appropriate. E.g., it imparts a more conversational tone and is a particularly effective way of making a point in polemical writing. The better political writers use it to great effect. And rightly so.

  • J Moffett

    “The words beginning each of these sentences are conjunctions…”

    Ambiguous.

    The word beginning each sentence…..?

  • venqax

    Then it has to be, “The word beginning each sentence IS A conjunction”, because you now have a singular noun. Either is fine grammatically.

  • Andrew

    Thank you, Mark.
    The English language is descriptive. Not prescriptive.

    I suggest that these pedants who insist data has to be plural and none singular will lose in the long run, when they are out-voted by the masses. In fact, that has probably already happened.

  • Jeff

    I find it curious that when used in a question, “does” and “doesn’t” are used interchangeably and responded to with no distinction. E.g. a reporter may ask the politician “Doesn’t it bother you that chldren are starving because of this law?” Or the reporter may ask “Does it bother you…” In either case, the politician will likely reply with “Yes, of course it bothers me …”
    My small point being that the conditional word “not” seems to be superfluous and I’m wondering how that came to be?
    Thanks,

  • venqax

    The English language is descriptive. Not prescriptive.

    That is so tiresome and thickheaded. If that were true, English would have no rules. Not on spelling, not on grammar, not on definitions of words. You could say or write things any way you wanted to and spsgetti would be just fine. But it’s not. And neither are mispllelings, of the grammaricaly, or snelldrickle.

  • Edward J. Cunningham

    If the last “rule” were ironclad, the title to one of my favorite books, “And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie would have to be retitled.

  • Robert

    What about the recent ridiculous substitution of “as” for “since” as if “since” has ceased to exist in modern English. For example, instead of saying, “Since this is bigger, I prefer it,” almost everyone these days is saying instead, “As this is bigger, I prefer it” I guess after it quits being bigger, you won’t prefer it anymore, since we only prefer it AS it’s getting bigger? This used to be listed in my grade school grammar books as a gross error and it really offends my ear.

  • San

    …..weird.

    Even though English isn’t my native language, the examples given at #2 (Never end a sentence with a preposition), like “If you believe it, please tell me what planet you are from” sound very “english” to me (probably because literally translated, it would be so so wrong in my native language) although apparently it is, in fact, wrong. Still, #4 and #5 sound natural to me when done correctly.

    So this one thingy which is apparently even for native speakers hard to get is hard to get for me too, but the rest is a piece of cake.

    Like I said, weird.

  • GMJ

    It is unfortunate that “following the rules” is derided and has become synonymous with negative socio-economic connotations. Wes Morgan wrote it best: that it all depends on the context, audience, and environment. This is what determines the degree to which a writer or speaker adheres to the rules of English.

    As a high school AP/Honors English student I learned all the rules,. I also learned that different types of writing demanded different levels of adherence. When I am writing for, or speaking to, a formal group I follow all the applicable rules. Adherence becomes less strict down to writing a personal letter to a friend, drafting a piece of creative writing (such as a story or poem), eventually ending with a text message to a friend. As Dewey wrote over 100 years ago, adherence, when appropriate, is a sign of discipline, a rational mind, and intellectual development.

    When you consider context as a guide to adherence, the whole “prescriptive/descriptive” battle in English becomes nonsense. That battle is less about the language and more about a struggle for cultural authority and power through language.

  • venqax

    @GMJ: I agree with much of your post. I think, though, that the important point with some of these are “rules” that were never really legitimate to begin with. E.g., ending a sentence with a preposition, don’t begin one with conjunction, and don’t split an infinitive were rules (or impossibilities) imported from Latin and pasted on top of English by the same bunch that decided to put a lot of silent letters into words that were spelled fairly phonetically for equally misguided reasons (island, debt, subtle, etc.). Others are less compelling– why data should be allowed in the singular is not defended except to say “most people don’t do it”, and likewise there is no reference for none being okay in the plural.

  • Manuel Barrera

    Perhaps you are correct. However, acceding to the familiar as somehow a better form of communication doesn’t always make writing clear.

    My students struggle with being respected for how they present themselves. So, you will forgive me if I help them learn more formal ways to write. I’d prefer they learn when and when not to communicate with less formalism and more descriptively than simply allowing them to “write how they talk”. In the world of racism, sexism, and class bias, it matters what my students learn about different ways for communicating in their writing.

    I think I’ll stick to that reality.

  • Marie B

    Good article! I am from the school ‘to never end a sentence in a preposition’ and breaking that rule has caused me much angst over my almost 70 years.

    Thank you for releasing me from its hold!

    Great humor!

  • NickyT

    Peter,
    >I don’t know how double-spacing between sentences came about, but it’s far worse in monospaced text (typewriter) than in proportional type.when a line of text needs to be adjusted to fit the margins, spaces between sentences get wider than spaces between words<

    This occurs only in fully justified text, and yes, it applies to books, where the effect is marginal because of the line width. But in multi-column layouts (esp. newspapers) this often results in unusually wide spaces between words; sometimes even one word on a line. This makes the text difficult to read as it often results in "rivers," consecutive vertical spaces that draw the eyes down the column instead horizontally. This is where condensing the text (where possible) can be useful.

  • NickyT

    Sorry about the italics. I didn’t know how the italicization works on this blog. It seems the “greater than/less than” characters somehow create italics. Paragraph spacing was also lost in one case. Is there a guide here somewhere about formatting codes?

  • Barbara Radisavljevic

    I heartily agree. Word usage has been changing for centuries. To follow many of the old rules today makes one appear overly academic. I’m afraid if some of these liberties are taken with the language, no one but English professors will notice, and many of the younger ones won’t notice either.

  • venqax

    @Barbara Radisavljevic: I think you’re giving English profs too much credit. I had a tough time getting one simply to change “grand marshall” to “grand marshal” in a university’s graduation program guide. Like other disciplines, I think a lot of English curriculums today pay very little attention to fundamentals.

    In this case I think there needs to be a distinction between rules that are no longer needed (which is always arguable) and “rules” that really never were valid to begin with. An example of the former might be dropping *whom* as antiquated in favor of *who* for all cases. Of the latter, an example might be *Never split an infinitive*. That was never a valid rule in English to begin with. Instead, it was an arbitrary import and imposition from Latin. In the field of law an imperfect analogy is the difference between following bad precedents just because they are precedents, not because they make for good law. I think numbers 1, 2, and 3 on the list fit that Latin Luggage categorization for discard. Number 6 and 7 I am more reluctant to support. The fact that data are plural does not seem overly technical to me, and I think it is something of a valid marker in scientific of scholarly writing at least (same with media, as an aside). Likewise, the logical fact that none is singular seems to me a decisive point. No reasons are given for accepting data as singular or none as plural. The fact that “everyone” says this or that never persuades me much regarding how things should be done with English and I use these things, personally, as a filter when evaluating someone’s erudition at least (sorry, that’s the way the world works.) If someone does, actually, have some arguments in that regard I would be very open to hearing them.

  • Dan

    Who said English is easy? From Primary Schools to the college we still struggle to climb its ladder. Thanks for such great insights into the grammatical errors we shouldn’t be making.

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