Beware of Zombie English Teachers and Their Brain-Eating Rules: Four False Rules of the English Language


Have you ever suspected your English teacher was making up obscure grammar rules just to have an excuse to wield a red pen?

Perhaps some teachers are devious like that, but most are not. Truthfully, English teachers face a difficult task: distilling the complexities of our hodgepodge of a language into succinct, easy-to-understand lessons. It’s hard to teach a hodgepodge, so they have to lean on rules—even some made-up ones—to rein in the chaos.

Keep your ears up for these four common lies that get passed off as rules of the English language. If you’ve already encountered these false claims, start unlearning them now. Your college English professors will thank you.

Four False Rules of the English Language

Lie #1: You should never end a sentence with a preposition.

This lie persists perhaps because it’s so easy to identify a preposition. Alas, such a simple rule is too good to be true. Need proof to counter your teacher’s red pen? Consult Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which says, “The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English. It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it a mistake.”

Teachers try to make you say: Is this the college of which you were thinking?
But it’s really OK (and better) to say: Is this the college you were thinking of?

Lie #2. You shouldn’t split infinitives.

An infinitive is the basic form of a verb, for example “to dance,” or “to run.” You split an infinitive when you place an adverb between the two words, such as Captain Kirk’s famous opener, “…to boldly go where no man has gone before.” This no-splitting lie most likely came about because Latin infinitives are one word (and thus cannot be split). English may draw a lot of its history from Latin, but it is not Latin, and Latin rules need not apply. Go ahead and split all the infinitives you want, especially if doing so adds clarity.

Teachers would have Kirk say: …to go boldly where no man has gone before.
But Kirk had it right: …to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Lie #3: You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

This zombie rule* has been thoroughly debunked by many reputable sources (the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage and Paul Brians, to name but two). If half of your sentences start with and or but, you probably need to take another look at your writing and clean it up. But, an occasional sentence-leading conjunction is perfectly acceptable.

Lie #4: They can’t be singular.

There’s a serious shortfall in English: the lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Language mavens have proposed many solutions to this problem over the years, including some new pronouns that never caught on (thon, ne, and ha, among others). The best solution that has come about—and actually it has been around for hundreds of years—is to use they as singular. So go ahead and shun the clunky he or she (and run screaming from the horrendous s/he).

Ugly: When a student comes in the room, he or she should immediately take his or her seat.
Much better: When a student comes in the room, they should immediately take their seat.

*A zombie rule, a term originated by Arnold Zwicky of Language Log fame, is a misguided rule that cannot be killed, no matter how many times it is shot through the heart with bullets of logic.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This article was written by Sarah Engel

Sarah Engel is a staff editor for CollegeView.com. Sarah writes extensively on the topic of undergraduate studies and the college search process.

18 Comments

  1. Patricia Fels

    As one of those Zombie English Teachers, I would recommend rephrasing that last sentence. Why not say “When students come in the room, they should immediately take their seats”? As for the other rules, I don’t teach them.

  2. Write Right!

    Uh oh! It is much better to use the gender-neutral “he,” which most people understand than to use “they” as a singular pronoun, which is absolutely incorrect!

  3. Maren Rehberg

    This article is as horrible as any fox news or NBC news show– one sided and full of holes. I am an English education student in my fourth year. Whiile this article shows that English does not always have to be the way English teachers say it is, the article does not clarify the context. Using prepositions at the end of sentences, beginning sentences with conjunctions, splitting infinitives, and using ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’ may be appropriate for everyday language use, none of the “lies” (except perhaps the first one) have any place in professional writing. Any college admissions worker would look at a piece of writing written by a student who followed these rules and cringe. Using these rules an an ACT, SAT, or AP exam would LOWER a students score. This article makes me less likely to recommend the website to students looking to get into college, because this article seeks to tell students what they want to hear, and not what will get them good test scores and make an impression on colleges.

  4. PWN the SAT

    “Lie #4″ is tested on the SAT. If you use “they” with a singular antecedent on that test, you lose points.

  5. Sokoris

    One of my pet peeves is people who use nominative pronouns after prepositions. My guess is that they do this because they were conditioned (improperly) to do so by hearing other nitwits doing the same thing. For example, it really grinds on me when I hear someone say, “You can give your permission form to either Mr. Smith or I.” You wouldn’t say, “Give the permission form to I,” would you? Clearly, it’s “to me”. Yet, people are corrected properly for saying, “Me and Luke went to the store,” so they get the impression that “me” is a bad word. Even more ironic is that when people use the objective pronoun properly, I have heard these pseudo-intellectual grammar police correct them which only serves to reinforce the poor usage.

  6. brit

    Some groups and individuals have used non-standard pronouns, hoping they will become standard. Various proposals for such changes have been around since at least the 19th century. For example, abbreviated pronouns have been proposed: ‘e (for he or she) or ‘s (for his/hers); h’ (for him/her in object case); “zhe” (also “ze”), “zher(s)” (also “zer”), and “zhim” (also “mer”) for “he or she”, “his or her(s)”, and “him or her”, respectively; ‘self (for himself/herself); and hu, hus, hum, humself (for s/he, his/hers, him/her, himself/herself). — wikipedia

  7. Euthyphro

    While it’s true that the English language would be better off were it commonly accepted to use “they” as singular, that’s simply not the case. I would be fired from my copy-editing job for ausing it. Until it becomes the most accepted solution, I’m settling for “he or she,” then choosing one and sticking with it. We need not use “he or she” for *every* instance of ambiguous gender.

  8. Anita Lend

    This is preposterous. You could maybe (MAYBE) get away with lies 1-3, but using “they” as a singular pronoun only shows an educated adult that you are ignorant of the rules of written English. You will look and sound stupid.
    As for the rest of the rules, I go by E.B. White’s Elements of Style, and I suggest you do so, as well.

  9. Anita Lend

    As for how to phrase your example sentence (When a student comes in the room, he or she should immediately take his or her seat), I would say that anyone who knows the general rules of written English could figure out how to reword to get rid of the issue.

    “When students enter the room, they should immediately take their seats.”
    “When a student enters the room, he should immediately take his seat.”
    “Students should take seats immediately after entering the room.”
    “A student should take a seat immediately after entering the room.”

  10. Linda Stephenson

    Sarah was on solid ground with her first three “false rules.” Her explanations are clear and accurate. “Lie #4,” however, is far too controversial to be brushed off as a “lie.” “They” is semantically plural. Yes, it’s true that “he and she” is awkward and ugly, but the “language mavens” she references have better solutions to the problem. For example, “When students come into the room, … .” For a good discussion of “singular they,” see Wikipedia, or any number of style books. For now, students should reserve “they” and “their” for plural antecedents. When they have their PhD in English or a few published books under their belts, they can break the rule with panache.

  11. John

    I can hang with “they” as a folk solution to the lack of gender-neutral pronoun in English. It’s when you have to go reflexive that it makes me shudder: “themself.” Awful. Even my high school students recoil at it.

  12. Hope

    I’m on board for your first three non-rules, but the last one seems suspect. If the subject is singular, it is wrong to use a plural pronoun. How about “When students come in the room, they should immediately take a seat”? I know saying “he or she” is cumbersome, but I don’t think your “solution” cuts it either.

  13. Alex Pogrebniak

    I agree with #1 through 3, as that there is no logic to the supposed errors (for example, no logical reason why a sentence cannot end with a preposition). I disagree with #4 for formal writing, however, because they is plural (not singular) and cannot thus logically stand in place of a singular antecedent. A mismatched plural pronoun might even send the reader on a search for the correct antecedent: in a slight variation of your example, consider “When a teacher comes in the room, they should immediately take their seat”; maybe they refers to the students, not the teacher. What about making the noun plural instead: When students come into a room, they should take their seat? Or how about using he sometimes and she sometimes as the pronoun?

  14. Ed

    Thanks for the tips. I do some editing work and agree with most of the points above. Sometimes, though, the writer is being lazy and not thinking about how words relate. For example, why not re-write the sentence “Then students come in the room, they should … ?” Match a plural noun with a plural pronoun.

    What is your opinion about matching a singular organization with a plural pronoun? For example, I often see something such as “Company X has plans to expand their product line” and “Company X makes every attempt to satisfy their employees’ needs.” I understand that the writers feel that the organization is a collection of people and therefore use “they.” However, I always change “they” to “it” and “their” to “its.”

    Also, any thoughts on the punctuation rule to always put question marks, periods, etc. inside the quotation marks?

    Thanks.

  15. Doreen

    #4 Even better:
    When students come in the room, they should take their seats.

    Making it plural will avoid a grammar error… and sounds fine, too.

  16. Sue

    To Write Right: “he” is not gender-neutral.

  17. Killington

    The #4 consensus above is quite right: simply pluralize the subject and you obviate the issue. The other three items are trivial.

  18. Brett Yarberry

    I agree with all the rules. A lot of the previous comments seem to be by people who were constantly and incorrectly taught these false rules. Whenever I heard these false rules or something like “the exception proves the rule”, I just ignored the teacher. Also most of these false rules are contradicted by old/middle English rules. “The exception proves the rule” is simply a contradiction. The exception proves that there isn’t a rule. I have always and always will use “their” in its singular sense. The word “you” was originally only plural, but has come to mean the singular also, why wouldn’t “they” do the same.

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