You’re Doing It Wrong: The English Language

Since creating this site, I’ve been working diligently to improve my writing. I’ll leave it to my readers to determine whether or not I’ve been successful in that effort. In the search for grammar advise, I came across this amusing piece at Smithsonian, challenging common assumptions about the proper use of English. The begin with a story about Winston Churchill. Someone wanted to alter his writing because Churchill ended a sentence with a preposition. Churchill’s response was simply, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

It’s a great story, but it’s a myth. And so is that so-called grammar rule about ending sentences with prepositions. If that previous sentence bugs you, by the way, you’ve bought into another myth. No, there’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction, either. But perhaps the biggest grammar myth of all is the infamous taboo against splitting an infinitive, as in “to boldly go.” The truth is that you can’t split an infinitive: Since “to” isn’t part of the infinitive, there’s nothing to split. Great writers—including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne and Wordsworth—have been inserting adverbs between “to” and infinitives since the 1200s.

The article also homes in on the source of this misinformation: Latinists!

In Latin, sentences don’t end in prepositions, and an infinitive is one word that can’t be divided. But in a Germanic language like English, as linguists have pointed out, it’s perfectly normal to end a sentence with a preposition and has been since Anglo-Saxon times. And in English, an infinitive is also one word. The “to” is merely a prepositional marker. That’s why it’s so natural to let English adverbs fall where they may, sometimes between “to” and a verb.

We can’t blame Latinists, however, for the false prohibition against beginning a sentence with a conjunction, since the Romans did it too (Et tu, Brute?). The linguist Arnold Zwicky has speculated that well-meaning English teachers may have come up with this one to break students of incessantly starting every sentence with “and.” The truth is that conjunctions are legitimately used to join words, phrases, clauses, sentences—and even paragraphs.

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7 Responses to You’re Doing It Wrong: The English Language

  1. john zande says:

    You pay attention to your writing. It comes through, and its good.

  2. Barneysday says:

    As a published author, and in admiring your efforts to improve your writing, the first thing I would tell you is to quit relying on SpellCheck to correct your work. It drives the editor soul in me nuts to see so many common grammar and spelling errors in various works, all attributable to writers not double and triple checking their work.

    Need an example? Your second sentence should be “Advice” not “Advise.” Yet SpellCheck would think this was just fine.

    And having said that, no matter how much you might check your work, accept that errors will still find their way into your best efforts.

    Thanks for the post

    • That’s great advice. See what I did there?

      I think we’re all afraid of offending people of we comment on their work. If you ever see something like that on my site, particularly in cases of poor grammar or sloppy sentence structure, please let me know. You’ll never offend me. Plus a bit of embarrassment here and there is good for controlling the ego.

      Thanks again,

      Josh

      • Barneysday says:

        I meant it as constructive, and am happy that you took it that way. I was trained by a diligent tyrant of an editor, and am thankful to this day for her efforts.

      • Oh yes, be ruthless if you see something out of sorts in my writing.

        Right now I’m reading “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction” by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd to improve my writing as well.

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