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

  • venqax

    @Sam: “If you think of data as a group noun, like herd or flock, it simply flows better most of the time.” Well, anything can be anything else if you just think of it as something it’s not. Data isn’t a group noun like herd or flock, it’s a plural noun like cows or geese. (Actually, herd and flock are not group nouns, either, but that’s a different issue.) That fact simply isn’t that hard to grasp . It seems to “flow better” because you are expecting something that is incorrect and your expectations is frequently met. Oo… that didn’t sound good.

    BTW. I’ll take the opportunity to go tangential here and state that it is pronounced DAY-ta or date- uh and not “DA-ta” or rhyming with rat-uh. That actually bugs me more that data as a singular do.

  • Judith Patterson Lanyi

    The wonderful story re: Winston Churchill was not told in full. Thus several people thought his saying “up with which I will not put” was a proper grammatical quote. An editor had corrected a sentence of Churchill’s that ended in a preposition. He found it absurd and to be comical and clever wrote in the margin “not being allowed to end a sentence in a preposition is something …up with which I will not put.”
    Someone wrote in to say Churchill had won a prize in literature so his sentence must be correct! (groan)

    Here’s a good example of ending a sentence in a preposition which is acceptable……..”Lighten up!”

  • Dolores

    Beginning sentences with conjunctions makes for choppy reading. Using a comma or semicolon to connect phrases produces smoother reading. This is not a law because language is an art, not a science; but I for one prefer refined art over crude art.

  • Wendy

    Actually, the prohibition against using the conjunction “because” to start a sentence was created by elementary grammar teachers to prevent students from writing fragments–“Because I said so.” You can legitimately begin a grammatically-correct sentence with “because.” “And” and “or,” on the other hand, are willfully broken to create emphasis.

  • Sam

    I know this is an old article, but the point about data being plural is one that always seemed awkward to me as well. If you think of data as a group noun, like herd or flock, it simply flows better most of the time. A data of datums seems like a perfectly acceptable way to communicate, and it gives you the ability to refer to multiple sets of datums in a concise way while using the more prevalent pluralization rule of adding an “-s” to a word to indicate plurality.
    All of the arguments about using arcane and arbitrary rules of writing as a sort of test of competence sound like the bitterness of people who were forced to struggle to learn nonsense, so they will require everyone else to do the same. This isn’t about high standards if the standards are arbitrary.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

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