Article by Steven Sawyer. Edited by Brenda Bernstein, The Essay Expert
Following The Essay Expert’s post about using the “singular they,” some writers in one of my LinkedIn groups were talking about breaking English grammar rules. Several of us spent a few hours discussing the merits, or de-merits, of using “they” as a singular pronoun. We were essentially divided into two camps: purists, who would never break a time-honored English grammar rule, and progressives, who know all the rules – and delight in breaking them. By the end of the heated discussion, purists were still purists and progressives remained progressive.
Purists love the predictability of our language and the grammar rules that govern it. They still remember how to diagram a sentence. They can spot a dangling modifier at 50 yards and pick out a subject-verb agreement error faster than you can say “comma splice.” If you went to their houses you might find that they iron their underwear and alphabetize the canned foods in their pantry. (I know a couple of purists who do that.)
Progressives, on the other hand, believe that breaking rules connects writers with the masses, who stopped thinking about grammar rules decades ago. (If you don’t believe me just ask any passerby to locate the verb in a sentence.)
Just last year, a group of Ivy League English language purists lobbied to have “Thou shalt not break English grammar rules” added as the 11th commandment. But language mavens, dictionary writers and even influential linguists are relaxing many writing standards. Some experts are equating this usage shift to the Great Vowel Shift that took place in England in the 15th century.
So, my Purist grammar friends, what will you do? Will you suck it up and go with the changes in the language as they evolve? Or are you determined to maintain pristine prose? It’s really okay if purists remain purists. I believe they’ll dwindle over time until they become an extinct species, but they do have their place in our culture today.
Purists, here’s what you’re going to have to swallow if you want to keep pace with our ever changing language.
Top 10 Obsolete Or Seldom Enforced Grammar Rules
- Don’t split infinitives. Who would want to shamelessly do that anyway?
- Active voice verbs are preferable to passive voice verbs. I will never part with this one. I have encrypted this rule in my memory’s hard drive. Passive voice will forever be stricken from my writing. That makes me a purist for this rule only.
- Never start a sentence with “And” or “But.” And why not? It gets easier every time you do it. See 5th paragraph, second sentence.
- Never start a sentence with “There is” or “There are.” There are many occasions when starting a sentence with “There is” or “There are” is perfectly acceptable. Boring, perhaps, but acceptable. E.g., There is more Canadian bacon in the United States than in Canada. It would be difficult to change the wording in that sentence without starting with “There is”.
- Never end a sentence with a preposition. Now that’s a rule we can all live without.
- Always use “more than” instead of “over” with numbers. Okay. Whatever. Math’s not my gig. But truly, either one is acceptable use today. So, purists, get over it.
- Data is plural, so the verb must always be plural. So data is what data does? Or data are what data do? If they say so. Anyone with a good ear for English knows the answer to this one.
- Don’t start a sentence with “This.” The grammar gurus now say that you can start a sentence with “This.” But (Ooops, there I go, breaking rule 3. See how easy that was?) I believe that [practice] is okay and this [guideline] is perfectly acceptable.
- Don’t use “free” as an adjective. E.g., “Can I get that laptop free?” Nay, nay, writing comrades. That’s purist speak. Feel free to use “for free.” E.g., “Can I get that laptop for free?”
- Don’t use “fun” as an adjective. You purists make me giddy. You’ve always used “fun” as a noun. E.g., “We had fun at the game today.” But we progressives like to use it as an adjective. “It was a fun weekend reunion with my family.”
English is an evolving language. A new word gets added to the language every 98 minutes, according to the Global Language Monitor. That’s 14.7 words per day. As words get added, usage rules undergo changes as well. Will you adopt the new “rules” of grammar? Your answer determines which camp you’re in.
Steven Sawyer is a blogger, author, editor and online English teacher and writing consultant. Read his blog at http://stevensawyer.wordpress.com/.