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Five grammar myths

Grammar myths

By Mary Morel | February 2017

Language evolves, yet we often cling to the rules we were taught at primary school in the belief that resisting change keeps the language pure.

But, whether we like it or not, change does occur and some ‘rules’ have become myths.

Grammar myth 1: None must take a singular verb

A common misconception is that none is always singular because it is short for no one. However, it is just as likely to mean not any, implying a plural.

The online Oxford Dictionaries states:

‘It is sometimes held that none can only take a singular verb, never a plural verb: none of them is coming tonight rather than none of them are coming tonight. There is little justification, historical or grammatical, for this view. None is descended from Old English nān meaning ‘not one’ and has been used for around a thousand years with both a singular and a plural verb, depending on the context and the emphasis needed.’

Singular usage

When none is followed by a mass noun (a noun that cannot be counted or made plural) it takes a singular verb.

None of the wine was drunk. (wine = mass noun)

Singular or plural usage

When none means no one or not any, use whichever verb makes more sense.

None of the printers are working.
None of the printers is working.

None of you are guilty.
None of you is guilty.

Grammar myth 2: Never start a sentence with However or Hopefully

Many people have been taught not to start sentences with However or Hopefully, but that is not true today.

Hopefully traditionally meant ‘in a hopeful manner’, but its meaning broadened last century to include ‘it is hoped’.

Hopefully, you will find this grammar tip useful.
However, you may disagree with this usage.

Read more about the different meanings and punctuation of however.

Grammar myth 3: Never start a sentence with And or But

Many people tell me that they were taught never to start a sentence with And or But, but modern grammar and style books debunk this myth.

The Chicago Manual of Style says:

‘There is a widespread belief – one with no historical or grammatical foundation – that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.’

Many famous writers, including Shakespeare, Blake, Tennyson and Kipling, have used And or But at the beginning of sentences.

Here’s an extract from Blake’s famous hymn, ‘Jerusalem’.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

Why have so many people had it drummed into them that starting a sentence with And or But is wrong? It is probably because of a belief that conjunctions join elements within sentences, not connect sentences. However, when used at the beginning of a sentence, And and But are conjuncts, rather than conjunctions.

What’s the difference? Both are joining words that relate ideas to each other, but conjuncts, unlike conjunctions, can be moved to different parts of a sentence because they are not connecting grammatical parts.

Having stated the case for And or But, I probably wouldn’t start sentences with these words in formal writing. And and But work well at the beginning of sentences in informal, conversational writing.

Grammar myth 4: You must not end a sentence with a preposition

Many people have been taught not to end a sentence with a preposition (prepositions are words such as by, for, in, of, to that show relationships between words). The only reason I can find for this belief is that the term ‘preposition’ seems to suggest the need to ‘pre-pose’ such words.

Winston Churchill once said something along the lines of:

‘This is the sort of English up with which I shall not put.’

Using a preposition at the end of a sentence can make your writing more informal.

That’s the manager I wrote to. (simpler than: That’s the manager to whom I wrote.)
He’ll never give up.

Sometimes a preposition at the end of a sentence can weaken your writing. In their book Style: Lessons in clarity and grace (2010), Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb say the following sentence from George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ would have been more emphatic without a preposition at the end.

Compare:

George Orwell: ‘[The defence of the English language] has nothing to do with … the setting up of a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from.’
Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb’s rewrite: ‘We must not defend English just to create a “standard English” whose rules we must always obey.’

Grammar myth 5: Never split an infinitive

I wonder if this myth is dying because many people don’t know what an infinitive is and have no idea what splitting it means. (An infinitive is the base form of the verb, e.g. come and also the base form of the verb plus ‘to’, e.g. to come.)

A split infinitive is when you put a word between to and its verb. A famous example is:

To boldly go where no man has been before.

Most grammar and style books agree there is nothing grammatically wrong with splitting infinitives. Having said that, some examples of split infinitives are stylistically awkward.

They planned to quickly make decisions. (clumsy)
They planned to make decisions quickly. (better)

to rapidly and effectively address the key issues. (clumsy)
to address the key issues rapidly and effectively. (better)

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