7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t

By Mark Nichol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 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.

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