7 grammar myths you learned in school
Grammar can be tough. There are a lot of rules to follow, and a lot to wrap your head around. Some of the rules we learn in school, though, aren’t exactly accurate. While some function as helpful guidelines for style and form, other so-called ‘rules’ are inventions, or ‘superstitions,’ as the lexicographer Henry W. Fowler called them.
Here are some common grammar myths:
1. You can’t end a sentence with a preposition
Most of us learned in school that ending a sentence with a preposition was a mistake. This ‘rule,’ however, is misguided, dating from the 17th century, when several notable writers tried to codify English to fit more neatly with Latin grammar.
Clearly, there are instances where attempting to avoid ending a sentence in a preposition results in a statement that is either over-formal or simply poor English. An over-formal example might be: ‘He told her that there was nothing of which to be frightened.’ An example of poor English (or Yoda English) might be: ‘Paid for the house had not been.’
In her myth-busting post on the issue, Catherine Soanes identifies four typical situations in which it is more natural to end a sentence with a preposition.
- passive structures (she enjoys being fussed over)
- relative clauses (they must be convinced of the commitment that they are taking on)
- infinitive structures (Tom had no-one to play with)
- questions beginning with who, where, what, etc. (what music are you interested in?)
2. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction
Another common grammar myth is the rule about starting sentences with conjunctions. Conjunctions are words such as and, but, so, and if, which are used to connect clauses, sentences, or words. This grammatical superstition arises from the thought that because these words are used to connect separate clauses, they suggest the presence of a fragment when used at the beginning of a sentence. The argument against using and or but to introduce a sentence is that such a sentence expresses an incomplete thought (or ‘fragment’) and is therefore incorrect. However, this is a stylistic preference rather than a grammatical rule.
3. Double negatives are always ungrammatical
When two negatives are used to communicate a negative, then the usage is ungrammatical. The reason for this is that two negatives actually cancel each other out and create an affirmative statement. For example, the sentence ‘I don’t have nothing for you’ is ungrammatical because the presence of two negatives technically switches the meaning to an affirmative one, so that it means ‘I have something for you.’
Even though the use of double negatives in formal speech and writing is nonstandard, the use of double negatives is common in areas such as informal speech and popular music (“Ain’t No Sunshine”).
However, there is one use of double negatives that is entirely grammatical. In this use, the double negative is used to express and reinforce an affirmative, by way of denial or understatement. For example, take the sentence
I couldn’t not help him. [meaning: I strongly felt I should help him]
The straight affirmative version of that sentence – ‘I could help him’ – lacks the reinforced nature of the double negative version.
4. Splitting infinitives is a mistake
For the uninitiated, splitting infinitives is the practice of placing an adverb between ‘to’ and the corresponding verb, as in ‘to lightly tap.’ Splitting infinitives is a common peeve of grammar enthusiasts, but like many such peeves it has been employed by well-regarded English prose stylists for centuries. However, take care before splitting those infinitives; many style guides and professors would still consider this a stylistic error.
These two sentences display split infinitives:
She used to secretly admire him.
You have to really watch him.
Those who believe that split infinitives are grammatically incorrect would rewrite these sentences as:
She used secretly to admire him.
You really have to watch him.
Avoiding splitting infinitives can change the emphasis of what’s being said. These sentences don’t have quite the same meaning:
You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’] You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’]
5. You can’t start a sentence with hopefully
You absolutely can. This use of hopefully to mean ‘it is hoped’ rather than the adverbial ‘in a hopeful manner’ has been disputed in the past several years, though it has found its way into general acceptance. So despite the fact that all sentence adverbs were once frowned on, nowadays you should be able to use happily, along with most other sentence adverbs (such as sadly, strangely, or obviously).
So why are thankfully and hopefully singled out for particular opprobrium? The answer lies in the fact that hopefully and thankfully can’t be reworded along the lines of other sentence adverbs, using the constructions ‘it is hopeful that’ or ‘it is thankful that’:
Hopefully, planning delays will be minimal.
X It is hopeful that planning delays will be minimal.
Instead, you have to reword such sentences along the lines of:
It is to be hoped that planning delays will be minimal.
6. The passive voice should not be used
Even though your teacher possibly warned you against it, the passive voice is perfectly acceptable. The passive tends to be used in formal documents such as official reports or scientific papers, often where an action or situation is regarded as more significant than who or what did or caused it:
active: Spain beat Brazil in the final match.
passive: Brazil was beaten in the final.
For example, in the above active example, the victor and loser of the match are made perfectly clear by the active structure: ‘Spain,’ the subject of the sentence, beat ‘Brazil,’ the object of the sentence, in a match. In the passive example, the information about Spain is missing, thus the agent of Brazil’s loss remains unclear – what is most important is the outcome of the game, not the winner.
However, even though the use of the passive voice is perfectly permissible, most people favour the active voice because of how it provides a fuller account.
7. You cannot use whose to refer to things
Yes, you can use whose to refer to things, not only people or groups of people. Sometimes, sticklers will insist that rearranging the sentence using of which. The below is an example sentence on OxfordDictionaries.com using whose:
Gasping for breath, they reached the row of houses whose gardens led onto the park.
This is the same sentence rewritten to accommodate of which:
Gasping for breath, they reached the row of houses, the gardens of which led onto the park.
The rewritten version using of which is clearly awkward and unwieldy. The better option here is to simply use whose instead.
Tell us about the grammar myths that annoy you in the comments below!