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.
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.