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”

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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,

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • J Moffett

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

    Ambiguous.

    The word beginning each sentence…..?

  • 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.

  • 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

    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?

  • 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.

  • 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

    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.

  • 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

    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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Patti Hale

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

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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

    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.

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