7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t

By Mark Nichol

background image 148

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.

Want to improve your English in five minutes a day? Get a subscription and start receiving our writing tips and exercises daily!

Keep learning! Browse the Grammar category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:


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

  • 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:

    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: myl/languagelog/archives/001702.html

    And whatever you do, don’t mention it on any of Geoff Pullum’s Language Log posts:

  • 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?

Leave a comment: