Grammar is set in stone, right? It’s either right or wrong.
Well, so say prescriptivists, at least. These people are the English teacher who red pens your work with fury; or the friend who loves to point out every little error in your text or Facebook post – yes, those self-proclaimed Grammar Nazis.
In the other camp, you’ve got descriptivists. While they don’t shun the rules of grammar, they don’t follow them rigidly. Instead, they prefer to look at how language is actually used – how people speak and write it. They recognise its fluidity and don’t sweat the small stuff.
As I’m a copy editor, you’d probably think I’d sit firmly with the former. People rely on me to get their language right, so surely, that means nitpicking every tiny grammatical detail? Well, no.
While I do understand, appreciate, and for the most part stick to the preordained rules of grammar – heck, without them there would be no benchmark for quality, not to mention textual anarchy – I’m also largely with the descriptivists.
That’s because sometimes, the rules just don’t matter. In fact, sometimes the rules actually work to the detriment of good communication. For example, they can make you sound like you have a broom stuck up your backside, aka rather formal, or they can stilt the flow. And in today’s world where conversational, easy-to-read copy generally works best, this isn’t ideal.
So which rules is it okay to break?
Rule 1: Never start a sentence with a conjunction
In the world of grammar, conjunctions are words like ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘if’, ‘so’ – just in case you skipped English class that day. Their linguistic purpose is to connect clauses or sentences. Therefore, according to prescriptivists, they should never be seen at the beginning of a sentence. Bah!
Far from being improper or inelegant, as is typically argued, starting a sentence with a conjunction can actually be a good stylistic thing. Why? Because it’s a great way to create flow within your paragraphs while still keeping sentences concise. Plus, it also avoids overuse of stiffer openings such as ‘Therefore’ or ‘In addition’.
Rule 2: Don’t use ‘like’ and ‘such as’ interchangeably
This is a common ‘mistake’ people make. But is it really a ‘mistake’? According to the grammar textbook, they each have a different, unique function. ‘Like’ should be used as an exemplar e.g. ‘Someone like me’, whereas ‘such as’ is the same as ‘for example’.
So technically saying ‘Bob enjoys food like pizza, ice cream, and strawberries’ is incorrect as this implies he enjoys food like that, but not actually that.
When you think about it in those terms, you wouldn’t do it. But, the reality is, people have been interchanging these two for years. In fact, even the literary greats – from William Shakespeare to HG Wells – broke this rule. Now it’s so universally understood that it’s fine to swap away.
Rule 3: Always ensure the predicate is ‘I’ not ‘me’
This is a grammar issue people love to pull others up on. So what exactly is the problem?
Both are first-person singular pronouns, but ‘I’ is the subject pronoun used for the one ‘doing’ the verb (predicate), whereas ‘me’ is the object pronoun or the ‘receiver’ of the action (accusative). So, for example, ‘I am reading a book‘ versus ‘She asked me to come too‘.
It’s obvious you shouldn’t say ‘Me am reading a book’ or ‘She asked I to come too’ so where’s the confusion? Well, this comes where two objects of subjects are linked, for example, ‘Donald Trump and I’ or ‘Donald Trump and me’. In reality, both are perfectly acceptable, and the latter often preferable as it’s much less formal – though here’s hoping you never have to say either.
Rule 4: Don’t mix up your ‘who’ with your ‘whom’
This one is a little bit like the last in that it’s a technical issue. According to formal grammar, ‘who’ should be used in the subject position of a sentence, whereas ‘whom’ should be used in the object position, as well as after a preposition. For example, ‘Who gave me this’? versus ‘Whom do you think will win?’ or ‘To whom it may concern?’.
But, rules, smules. Who actually says whom these days, anyway? While we might see it written, very few people would say it in speech – unless they were trying to imitate a 19-century aristocrat or sound posh. In fact, even its use in formal text is declining. So if the ‘who‘ fits, use it, and forget the ‘whom‘.
Rule 5: Avoid engaging in comma splicing
The comma is the simplest of punctuation. It marks a pause between parts of a sentence, or it separates items in a list. It’s harmless, it’s functional, but when it’s used to join two separate clauses, by God does it cause an outcry among those prescriptivists out there. “Why not just use a semi-colon, dash or conjunction instead?” you hear them cry.
Well, yes, you could. But just what exactly is the problem with the comma in this context. For example, to say “I’m going out, I’ll be back soon”, sounds okay, doesn’t it? In fact, replacing the comma with ‘and’ in this context would just should too formal. Likewise, replace it with a semi-colon or dash and it just seems wrong. A comma adds lightness, so I’ll use it, bite me.
Rule 6: Never split infinitives
Unclear on what a split infinitive is? Split infinitives are the ‘crime’ of putting an adverb between ‘to’ and the verb’ e.g., ‘To fiercely love’. Gasp. In correct grammar terms, this should be ‘To love fiercely’. However, this rule is based on an old Latin assumption that ‘to love’ is the verb. Whereas in English ‘to’ and ‘love’ are separate words.
Admittedly in many cases, the split version does sound a bit clunky and can even make little sense. However, in so many other cases, it works perfectly well e.g., ‘To boldly go,’ ‘To carefully apply.’ In fact, you could easily argue that between a ‘to’ and a verb is the common sense place for an adverb. If it’s good enough for a Star Trek phrase that has stuck for generations, it’s good enough for me.
Rule 7: Always use pronoun-subject agreement
For a prescriptivist, pronouns must follow their antecedent (preceding noun) in terms of being either singular or plural. However, when it comes to the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she,’ this rule runs into problems, mainly sexist ones. For example, saying, “Somebody left his bag behind” would be the traditional correct way to say it, even when said somebody could be a woman.
To correct this, some people have gone to the other extreme, replacing all ‘hes‘ with ‘shes.’ I hate this; it’s just sexism reversed. Alternatively, you can use ‘he or she‘, but this can sound clunky if used repeatedly in writing.
For years now, people have instead replaced it with the gender-neutral plural pronoun ‘theý.’ Who cares if it’s technically wrong, it makes sense, and it doesn’t offend anyone (expect prescriptivists, of course), so go ahead.
Rule 8: Don’t confuse your ‘that’ with your ‘which’
Ever wondered whether to use ‘that‘ or ‘which‘ when writing a sentence? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. This grammar dilemma has been plaguing people for centuries. So what is the rule about? Basically, it says that ‘which‘ should be used in non-restrictive clauses and ‘that‘ in restrictive ones. To avoid the jargon (or jibberish), let’s look at an example:
‘The house, which looked like a relic from the 60s, needed a renovation’. This is a non-restrictive clause as the part with ‘which‘ in is sectioned off and could be omitted. ‘The house that looked like a relic from the 60s needed a renovation’ – there is nothing to omit here. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, either works.
Rule 9: Don’t use sentence fragments
Never use sentence fragments; they cry. Well, I say bugger that. While the very basis of grammar may hinge on the complete sentence – its construction, syntax, grammar, punctuation, etc. – that does not mean that we always have to use them. In fact, fragmented sentences are everywhere today, especially online.
Look on social media and you’ll see them in abundance. Typically it’s done to emphasize certain words or sentences. For example, ‘Best. Thing. Ever.’ Or for stylistic effect e.g. ‘The ocean was blue. Powerful. Inviting.’ So while it may not be ‘correct’, it can enhance the meaning and mood of your copy, so crack on and do it – unless you’re writing something extremely academic or formal.
Rule 10: Never end sentences with a preposition
Firstly, let’s once again start with defining a preposition. Prepositions are words that create relationships with other words like ‘put,’ ‘on,’ ‘from,’ ‘out,’ ‘against.’ Because of this, it’s considered wrong to leave them hanging at the end. However, this is another one that rests on Latin. Plus, it results in some very awkward sentences in modern English.
For example: “Which group is she in?” sounds much better than “In which group is she?” or “She is in which group.” The last two just sound preppy and uncomfortable. As an even more extreme example, or to quote Winston Churchill when he was once criticised for using a preposition at the end of a sentence: “That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put!”
We need grammar rules, they keep us on track. They provide us with language guidelines, and we look to them as a benchmark of quality. But, what we also need is common sense and an understanding of how English is used. If breaking a rule is going to result in a better piece of communication, then heck do it. After all, rules are made to be broken.
Did you spot any of these so-called ‘errors’ in this blog? Go back and see how many you can find.