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 https://stevensawyer.wordpress.com/.
The above post on progressives vs. purists was both “fun” and enlightening. I agree that in some cases, we have to be open to change rather than stick to the more correct language usage.
I agree with the above comment. Using “Where you at?” and “got” instead of “have” (or in many cases, “buy”) have become widely acceptable, but I cringe every time I hear them uttered.
Things like/such as “What you got?” really get (to) me. Anyway, what does “get to me” actually mean? Also, using a word to express the opposite feeling, “You kill me” or “That’s a killer” has become the norm rather than the exception and is taken to excruciating heights on programs that my grandchildren watch such as “American Idol.”
But … the English language is evolving and devolving to such an extent that, at 14.7 new words a day, purists must be having a hard time making or expecting others to stick to the rules.
However, is it too much to ask that some rules not be broken such as misuse of verb tense and pronouns?
Penelope, I’m so glad you mentioned “Where you at”! When living in Brooklyn, if I were asking for directions on the street I would always say “Do you know where such-and-such street is at?” I’m also guilty of using “got” instead of “have.” It’s funny the things that still bug me, vs. the things I’ve adopted. I’m sure these things differ for each of us. “Fun” as an adjective still grates on my nerves. And I don’t think it’s too much to ask to keep some rules in place… but who’s to decide which ones? I certainly have my opinions!
Thanks Lynn. We all have our own pet peeves don’t we? Mine are different from yours! (And let’s not even start on different from/different than.) I have articles on its/it’s and lose/loose which I invite you to read and share! https://theessayexpert.com/blog/2011/05/31/the-day-my-dad-didnt-make-it-home-from-work-by-marianne-worley-business-writing-consultant-at-the-essay-expert/ and https://theessayexpert.com/blog/2009/09/13/common-spelling-mistakes-lose-vs-loose/ respectively.
Thanks for your comment Rick. I agree!
I feel as though proper usage of fewer/ less is almost entirely obsolete. I can’t find anyone who still understands the distinction or honors it.
Thanks for your comment Marion. It’s funny, I see “10 Items or Fewer” now in many grocery stores, and I almost want them to change it back to the “wrong” way!
Should we follow the rules regarding using the possessive form of nouns and pronouns with gerunds or is it a truly lost cause?
Great question Mary! I’ve been fighting for this one since I learned the rule at the age of eight. I’m terrified by the number of times people correct me on this point when I am using correct grammar!
I’m mid-60s and I always wonder what happened to the use of A and An?
Do mean in spoken speech, John? It does seem like a lot of people say “a” when “an” would be grammatically correct.
I’m not a pure purist! Quirky, and especially regional, “impurities” make such entertaining conversation and writing.
Still, why has the subjective compound pronoun become so accepted when used in the objective case? In speaking, I realize we all get tripped up, but I’ve seen it in writing and heard it from journalists.
I’m right there with you, Becky. Drives me up a wall and the correct grammar seems so logical. Thanks for your comment!
The increased misuse of I and me when referring to another person and oneself is my beef. I am now hearing even professional speakers such as news announcers, pastors, etc. making statements such as, “The taxi picked up my friend and I.” In fact, I came across this article when again doing a search to see if this rule has changed.
I’m with you, Susan. What did you find? Anyone saying the rule has changed? I think it’s more that very few people understand correct usage.