March 4th, the only date that is also a complete sentence, is National Grammar Day. And while we love and respect grammar here at Barbara S. Ponce Public Library, there are some rules that seem to be around just to make English more complicated than it already is.
In most casual writing, you can freely ignore these extraneous English grammar rules.
So the next time someone gripes about these petty so-called “rules”, tell them they’re just old school.
1. Don’t split infinitives.
In English grammar, an infinitive is the word “to” coupled with a verb. Examples: “to read”, “to jump”, “to see”. A split infinitive happens when a word gets in between, or splits, “to” and the coupled verb.
Perhaps the most famous split infinitive is in the opening theme of Star Trek: the Next Generation when Captain Picard declares: “…to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
That sentence is perceived as grammatically incorrect, because the adverb “boldly” should not be placed between to and go. The grammatically correct sentence is, “to go boldly where no man has gone before.” Now, doesn’t that sound odd?
This idea that you shouldn’t split infinitives has been around for a long time, but it was only specifically mentioned by Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury, in his 1864 book The Queen’s English. You can see the entry in Google Books right here.
Although Alford didn’t state it as a grammar rule, he did say that he saw “no good reason” to split the infinitive. Well, that’s just one man’s opinion, and plenty of people at that time were using split infinitives according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
In fact, many respected writers have used split infinitives, including Benjamin Franklin, Lord Byron, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Don’t sweat the split.
2. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
A preposition is a word that defines the relationship between two other words in a sentence. Examples of prepositions are “to”, “in”, “over”, “by”, “on”, and “for”. In the sentence, “He is on the mountain,” the preposition “on” tells you where the man is in relation to the mountain.
This silly rule about never ending a sentence with a preposition comes directly from Latin grammar. In Latin, prepositions always come before the prepositional phrase. Not so in English. How dare Latin try to impose its stuffy rules on English! Well, it wasn’t really Latin itself that did it, of course; it was a bunch of influential, Latin-obsessed 17th and 18th century writers. I say this rule needs to be done away with once and for all.
Don’t let Latin grammar rules get you down.
3. Never start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.
A coordinating conjunction is a word that connects two independent clauses in a sentence. The most common coordinating conjunctions are “or”, “and”, “nor”, “but”, “yet”, and “so”. A working example is: “She rushed to the store, but it was already closed when she got there.”
Although you were probably taught in elementary school to never start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, the rule has no basis as far as English grammar is concerned. So why do so many people think this is a rule? Get It Write has an intriguing theory:
When grammar teachers teach youngsters the essentials of sentence structure, they most likely explain that coordinating conjunctions are used to hold together elements within a sentence. Therefore, they may discourage students from starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions because they are trying not only to explain conjunctions but also to help their students learn to avoid sentence fragments like this one:
She was a nice girl. And smart, too.
Don’t be afraid to use conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence.
4. Use a double space after a period.
Okay, so this might not be a grammar rule per se, but it’s worth mentioning here. Don’t use a space after a period! It just makes more work for your editor who must painstakingly go through your entire document and remove all the extraneous spaces.
So why do some people think there needs to be a space after a period? One word: typewriters.
This article in Slate explains:
In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine’s shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do.
The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks “loose” and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here’s the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we’ve all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.
5. Don’t use “they” as a singular pronoun.
A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun. There are many, many pronouns, but just a few of them are: “me”, “you”, “we”, “she”, “he”, “it”, and “they”. Here’s a working example: “Mr. Johnson is the new English teacher. He doesn’t give us a lot of homework.” Instead of saying “Mr. Johnson” again in the second sentence, we simply substitute the word “he”. The word “us” is also a pronoun, which is used instead of “students”. If you’re still confused, try this article on The Blue Book of Punctuation and Grammar’s website.
Pronouns can be singular or plural depending on the word they’re replacing. “Sally” becomes “she”, “John” becomes “he”, and “the United States government” becomes “they”.
But what do you do when you need to use a singular pronoun for one person whose gender is unknown? Well, if you’re sticking to traditional grammar rules, then you have to write “he/she”. But if you’re a little less strict with your grammar, you can give yourself a break and use “they”. Since English is sorely lacking in gender-neutral pronouns, “they” can be an acceptable substitute in casual language.
To help dump this silly rule once and for all, “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun was declared the 2015 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society.