How Much Grammar Do You Need? Part IV

Here are some “grammar” rules you DON’T need!

That is, rules that aren’t even really rules. And even if they were rules, they’d fall into that category Joe Williams created of “rules” that are more noticeable and disruptive when they are followed than when they aren’t, because they’re alien to the way most of speak and write.Man worrying about his writing

Of course, if you could see into the innermost grammar hearts of all those agents and editors to whom you direct your missives, you would find people who cringe every time you fail to observe one of these mythological rules. My point is that convoluting your prose to avoid them, or obsessing over them to the point that your creativity begins to ice over, is counterproductive. In these cases, let your natural ear as an English speaker rule.

Here they are (I’ll probably come up with others and invite you to submit your candidates):

Beginning a sentence with “because.”

Williams says that there’s no sign of this prohibition in any handbook he ever saw, and I echo that. Yet, even thirty years after Williams debunked it, my students would still cite this “rule” to each other in their peer reviews.

In my view—a pure hypothesis, I admit—this instruction arose from some teacher’s worry that clauses prefaced with “because” all too often were never connected to the necessary independent clause and thus end up as fragments. We do talk this way: “Because I said so.” “Because I don’t want to.” “Because I like it.”

It’s a fact that the minute you put the word “because” in front of a sentence, it becomes “dependent,” in need of a crutch to make sense. In conversation, the missing information is already present in the ongoing conversation. In formal Standard Written English, the missing components should be supplied in an independent clause attached to the “because clause.” “Because I like it, I often swim in the lake in winter.” (Or because I’m a glutton for punishment.)

It’s probably more natural to reverse the clauses: “I often swim in the lake in the winter because. . . .” But there’s nothing grammatically wrong with starting with the “because clause.” It’s a stylistic choice, not a grammar/moral-fiber choice.

Ending a sentence with a preposition.

I was startled years ago when, at my university, the speech communication people presented the writing faculty with a list of the things students ought to be learning in first-year writing, and the list was just a bunch of grammar “rules,” this one prominently among them. Honestly, I thought anyone teaching writing in college would have a more nuanced idea of what “writing” consists of than that list.

In order to follow this supposed rule, you have to become so rigidly formal that your efforts wave and shout from the page. “Who were you talking to?” becomes “To whom were you talking?” Or say you’re synopsizing in a query and you need a sentence like, “His daughter was the only person he’d confessed to.” Is it really better to write, “His daughter was the only person to whom he’d confessed”? It depends entirely on how “formal” you want to sound. Personally, I’d probably find a way to “write around” this conundrum, but I’m making a point. (We’ll get to the who/whom issue soon enough.)

There’s a very famous example of the preposition-at-the-end issue often attributed to Winston Churchill. Supposedly he responded to an editor’s efforts to eliminate terminal prepositions with a note: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” (My dad loved to quote this at me.) For a lively discussion of this supposed quote, see this post by Geoffrey K. Pullum at The Language Log. This post claims, from a reputable source, that the rule that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition “was apparently created ex nihilo in 1672 by the essayist John Dryden.” The post gives several other examples of smart choices in which the preposition stays where it wants to, including a discussion of the kind of English verb that includes words generally defined as prepositions, such as “put up with.” Separate these at your peril.

Splitting infinitives

I’m old enough to remember expletives fired at the epithet for Star Trek as it shifted into warp speed: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Eeek! Split infinitive—separating the “to” from its partner, “go,” which together create the “infinitive” form of the verb, which in English is created exactly this way: a main form of the verb plus “to.” To eat. To see. To write. If you’ve ever taken a foreign language, say Spanish or French, you also learned about infinitives, the more-or-less “base” form of the verb: estar, hablar, manger, sortir.

You’ll note that these infinitives belonging to “romance languages” (not because they’re sexy but because they come from “Roman” or Latin ancestors) are one-word infinitives, not two-word infinitives as in English. At some point, some upmarket grammarians decided that Latin was a more “advanced” or “noble” language than English; English needed to be elevated by becoming more like Latin. You can’t split an infinitive in Latin, for obvious reasons; so you shouldn’t split one in English either. I guess you’ve noticed how much better English sounds as a result of this rule.

Or does it? Does “To go boldly where no man has gone before” really sound better? Not to my ear. One of the reasons the revised version clunks is that the original, “to boldly go,” is in “iambic pentameter,” the poetic meter most natural to English—in fact, the one used by Shakespeare. Here’s a nice account of the rule and advice about (not) applying it.

The upshot: listen to your sentences. Put the adverb (the “boldly”) and the preposition where they most want to go.

Send me your candidates: Rules we don’t need!

Happy editing!


1 Comment

Filed under correct grammar, Editing, Finding agents, grammar, grammar rules, Learning to write, Myths and Truths, punctuation, self editing, style, Teaching writing, Writing, Writing and teaching writing

One response to “How Much Grammar Do You Need? Part IV

  1. Pingback: Describers vs. Prescribers: Reaching a Linguistic Common Ground | Just Can't Help Writing

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