7 bogus grammar 'errors' you don't need to worry about
When it comes to the English language, I'm not an anything-goes kind of guy. If I were, I wouldn't have written a book called How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Errors and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. It's just that I hate to see people waste their time hunting down so-called mistakes that really aren't mistakes at all. So consider this a public-service announcement in the wake of Monday's National Grammar Day. Here are seven rules you really (really!) don't have to worry about following.
1. Don't split infinitives
The rule against splitting infinitives — that is, putting an adverb between the word to and a verb — was pretty much made up out of whole cloth by early 19-century grammarians, apparently because they felt the proper model for English was Latin, and in Latin, infinitive-splitting is impossible. However, English is not Latin, and infinitives have been profitably split by many great writers, from Hemingway ("But I would come back to where it pleases me to live; to really live") to Gene Rodenberry ("to boldly go where no man has gone before"). It's okay to boldly do it.
2. Don't end a sentence with a preposition
The idea that it's wrong to end a sentence with a preposition (from, with, etc.) was invented by the English poet John Dryden... in 1672. He probably based his objection on a bogus comparison with — you guessed it — Latin, where such constructions don't exist. In any case, there is no basis to the rule in English grammar, and, once again, great writers have ignored it with no great loss to their prose or reputations. Jane Austen: "Fanny could with difficulty give the smile that was asked for." Robert Frost: "The University is one most people have heard of." James Joyce: "He had enough money to settle down on." Trying to avoid ending with a preposition frequently ties you into the awkward knot of "to whom" and "to which" constructions. On a memo criticizing a document for committing this "error," Winston Churchill allegedly wrote: "This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put."
It is true that prepositions are a relatively weak part of speech and, all things being equal, it's desirable to end sentences strongly. So sometimes it pays to rewrite such constructions. Thus, "He's the person I gave the money to" isn't as good as "I gave him the money."
3. Don't use "which" as a relative pronoun
The bogus idea here is that only that, never which, should be used to introduce so-called defining or restrictive clauses. For example, "The United States is one of the countries which that failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol." One again, this is totally made up. Geoffrey Pullum, co-editor of the authoritative Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, has written, "The alleged rule has no basis. Even in edited prose, 75 percent of the instances of relative 'which' introduce 'restrictive' relatives." The culprit here seems to be the great language commentator H.W. Fowler, who popularized the notion in his 1926 book, Modern English Usage.
In fairness to Fowler, he merely speculated that if writers were to follow this custom (as he acknowledged they currently did not), "there would be much gain both in lucidity & ease." Language sticklers took that and ran with it, and this idea reigned for most of the rest of the century. Even now, it has a lot of adherents. But it still doesn't have any justification. One of the great sticklers, Jacques Barzun, advised in a 1975 book that we ought to avoid such whiches. But as Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out, on the very next page Barzun broke his own rule, writing, "Next is a typical situation which a practiced writer corrects 'for style' virtually by reflex action…."
4. Don't start a sentence with a conjunction
Except possibly in the most formal settings, there is absolutely nothing wrong with starting a sentence with And or But. A funny thing about the supposed rule against doing so is that no one has been able to find a book or authority that has ever endorsed it (with the exception of a single 1868 text turned up by the scholar Dennis Baron). But countless people feel this is unacceptable, possibly because the notion was pounded into their head by some middle school grammar teacher. Get over it!
(It has become popular recently to follow sentence-opening conjunctions with a comma, for example, "But, we got there too late for the early-bird special." That is indeed wrong. No comma.)
5. Don't use the passive voice
The poster child for passive-hating is a quote from President George H.W. Bush. In a 1986 speech about the Iran-Contra scandal, he said, "Clearly, mistakes were made." Just as clearly, the problem is that the grammar fudges a crucial question: Who made the mistakes? Passive construction can indeed propagate such obfuscation, as well as wordiness, and thus should be used judiciously. But there's nothing inherently wrong with it, and when the subject of a clause or sentence isn't known, or isn't as important as the object, passive voice can be just the thing. Tom Wicker's classic New York Times opening sentence of November 23, 1963, would have been ruined if he'd tried to shoehorn it into the active voice. Wicker wrote: "President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today."
6. Don't neglect to use singular verbs
Etymologically, data is the plural of the Latin datum. But from the time it first appeared in English, it has been treated as a collective noun (such as water or money), and collective nouns take singular verbs. Every single citation in The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) pairs data with such a verb, starting with, "Inconsistent data sometimes produces a correct result," from an 1820 edition of the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal. Thus, insisting on the data are… is pretentious and unnecessary. Media, meaning the various means by which information is disseminated in a society, appeared later — 1923, according to the OED. Although it's plural of the Latin medium, it too was treated from the start as a singular. The media are… is an unfortunate recent affectation.
A similar issue arises when a word such as group or bunch is followed by the word of, then a plural. For example: "A bunch of my friends is/are coming over." Some sticklers insist on is, because group is singular. But this is an area where English grammar is flexible, and are is acceptable as well. My advice is to choose the singular or plural based on whether you're emphasizing the collection or the individuals. In the above example, I would go with are. Saying A bunch of my friends is coming over sounds as stuffy as your nostrils in the middle of a particularly bad cold.
7. Don't use words to mean what they've been widely used to mean for 50 years or more
An instant's glance at the OED confirms that the one thing about words that never changes is that their meanings always change. The process takes time, and to be an early adopter of a new meaning means putting yourself at risk of both incomprehension and abuse. However, at a certain point, clinging to old definitions is a superstitious waste of time and thought. Here's a list of words and expressions whose new meanings, though still scorned by some sticklers, are completely acceptable. (If it puzzles you that there is any objection to some of these, or to find out the original meaning, Google the word or phrase. You will find a lively debate, to say the least.)
It's okay to use...
Decimate to mean "kill or eliminate a large proportion of something"
like to mean "such as"
liable to to mean "likely to"
hopefully to mean "I hope that"
over to mean "more than"
since to mean "because"
while to mean "although"
momentarily to mean "in a moment"
the lion's share to mean "the majority"
verbal to mean "oral"
I could care less to mean "I couldn't care less"
And if you have a problem with that, I could care less.
Ben Yagoda is the author of How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Errors and the Best Ways to Avoid Them (published last month by Riverhead) and nine other books. He is a Professor of English and Journalism at the University of Delaware. His website is www.benyagoda.com.