Unlike Spanish, which has the Royal Spanish Academy that – together with the other twenty-one national language academies in Spanish-speaking nations – ensures a common standard for Spanish, English has no such body. Instead, there are a number of rule books or “style guides”, each with its own set of rules and guidelines. The Oxford Manual of Style is one of the most popular for British English, as are style guides from The Economist, The Telegraph and The Guardian. For American English, The Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style are commonly used for most texts, while the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing is the standard for academic publications, especially in the humanities.
This lack of standardization has led to conflicting rules – some of which have no historical linguistic basis – and the perpetuation of what can only be called “grammar myths”, with the concomitant confusion about what “correct” English actually is.
Given this reality, what’s a writer to do?
For the first of this two-part blog post, we’ll examine three of the more common “commandments” that have no historical linguistic basis.
1. Never start a sentence with a conjunction such as “and” or “but”.
Inculcated in school children from the time they first pick up a pencil, this rule is useful for youngsters learning to organize their thoughts on a page, but has been repeatedly “broken” by some of the finest writers in the English language, including Shakespeare:
“And your large speeches may your deeds approve
That good effects may spring from words of love.”
2. Never end a sentence with a dangling preposition.
Latin does not place prepositions at the end of sentences and, because Latin was considered at one time to be the “perfect” language and thus the model to be emulated, English grammarians applied this rule to English. Though first articulated by 17th-century English poet John Dryden, it became popularized in Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar published in 1762.
Unfortunately, he seemed to be unable to follow his own rule, writing in the book, “This is an idiom, which our language is strongly inclined to.”
3. Do not split an infinitive.
Once again, Latin grammar rears its ugly head. Since Latin infinitives comprise a single word, they cannot be split, unlike English, whose infinitives comprise two words: “to + verb” (or the bare infinitive, the form used with modal auxiliary verbs) and, once again, prescriptivist grammarians applied the Latin rule to English, despite there being no logical reason for English infinitives to not be split. Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury popularized this notion in his 1864 book The Queen’s English. Perhaps one of the most widely known examples of a split infinitive can be found in the opening sequence to the famous Star Trek series:
“…to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
If you’re looking for a more traditional example, Robert Burns wrote in The North Briton, published in 1766:
“Is this the cue given him in his instructions, to boldly assert, that Englishmen are all born to be slaves to a few persons.”
Unfortunately, there are still a few diehards who insist on applying this senseless rule, including United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who unilaterally changed “will faithfully execute” to “will execute faithfully” when swearing in Barack Obama for his second term as president, causing Obama to mix up his words. This inevitably led to charges that his presidency was not legal because he had not uttered the Oath as written, and thus to the two repeating the ceremony – this time, word for word, the following day in the White House.
It is important to remember that many things taught as “rules” are nothing more than stylistic choices, usage conventions or, quite simply, preferences.
Our next post will debunk some more long-standing grammar myths.