The Grammarian, by Brent Miller. 2022.
The Grammarian. Image credits: Brent Miller, 2022, with Midjourney in the style of Winslow Homer.

Language constantly evolves and, as it does, it creates controversy. Likewise, in some cases, certain speakers create new restrictive rules or apply existing language rules in an overly broad or restrictive manner. These people are often referred to as “purists” or “grammar mavens”, in the negative, pernickety sense. Their beliefs about correct language usage are often the source of grammar myths, and these cause a great deal of insecurity among both professional writers and the general public when they set out to write. Here are some grammar myths that you can relax about (notice the dangling preposition).

Grammar myth 1: Never split an infinitive.

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Opening Sequence to to Star Trek.

All dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before, and thus was the Empire forged.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe.

Split infinitives first appeared in the 13th century, were rare in the 15th and 16th centuries, and reappeared in the 17th century. Language prescriptivists railed against them in the 19th century, and some of that criticism stuck. Most publications use them, although some avoid them wherever possible to avoid annoying grammar mavens.

William Strunk wrote in Elements of Style that when there are two options, such as “to diligently enquire” vs. “to enquire diligently”, the split infinitive should be used when the writer wants to emphasize the adverb. Later, he states that in some cases trying to avoid split infinitives can produce “stiff, needlessly formal” language. It came down to a “matter of ear”.

Likewise, The Chicago Manual of Style says, “Although from about 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate the to from the principal verb.”

This is good news, because it’s difficult to never split an infinitive.

Grammar Myth 2: Never end a sentence with a preposition.

We could rewrite the sentence “That’s what I asked for” as “That is the thing for which I asked.” But the first one was correct, and nobody would say or write the second.

Having said that, some people have a phobia of dangling prepositions, so avoid it in very formal writing, like a cover letter, by using more formal words like request.

Grammar Myths 3, 4 and 5: Never begin a sentence with the conjunctions and, but, so, because or however.

It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But, it is better to be good than to be ugly.

Oscar Wilde

These rules are now considered outdated and the Chicago Manual of Style states that they have never been a rule at all, with as many as 10 percent of sentences in solid writing starting with conjunctions like and, but and so (myth 3).

Likewise, the grammar police may flinch at an initial because (myth 4). However, writers should merely avoid leaving an orphaned dependent clause like “Because I said so.” At least, they shouldn’t in formal writing—fiction often includes intentional sentence fragments.

However in the initial position is also correct (myth 5), although it can sound better if it is marked off by commas and placed after the word it is modifying, e.g. “At first, they got along well. Soon, however, they began to wish they weren’t quarantined together.” It can also be very effective after a semi-colon: “These ‘zombie’ rules are not valid; however, always consider your audience.”

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