I hate to break it to you so bluntly, but sometimes harsh truth is best.
Some of the things you know to be true about English and grammar aren’t. True.
It’s OK. We all harbor cherished beliefs that go back to grammar school (sorry) or to an early writing mentor. We lie in wait as we read, like bandits at the pass, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting dolt who violates our sensibilities, desecrates our grammar religion.
It can be humbling to find out, many years on, that we’re simply mistaken. Some folks, alas, do not handle it well. More’s the pity for them.
Here’s a nearly infallible way to tell if you’re among the living dead wrong. You have a number of cherished rules that you apply to everything you read. And judge accordingly. It’s great writing if it breaks no rules. It’s illiterate crap if it transgresses even a teensy tiny bit. Admit it. You love that feeling of righteous indignation.
And here’s a good antidote: Every time you hear yourself tsk-tsking someone else’s language mangle, look it up and see if, in fact, they’re really wrong. Working as an editor for – well, you know, a long time – I’ve had most of my ideas challenged at one time or another. After choking down a few pieces of humble pie, I began to realize that my memory and my linguistic acumen aren’t perfect.
Most of the time these days, I look things up because someone’s challenged something I’ve written. After I’ve assured myself that it was fine as it was, I smile outwardly and say, “OK, if that sounds better to you, fine with me.” And grin inwardly with sanctimonious satisfaction. Yes, I admit it. I love that feeling.
A Few Examples
1. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
“… the deferring of prepositions sounds perfectly natural and is part of standard English. Once you start moving the prepositions to their supposed ‘correct’ positions you find yourself with very stilted or even impossible sentences.”
– Oxford Dictionaries Grammar Myth Debunkers
And this quote (often erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill, who supposedly replied to prepositional criticism thusly): “That is the sort of English up with which I shall not put.” I don’t know who really said it, but it puts a definitive cap on the argument.
2. Never start a sentence with a conjunction. And its corollary: don’t write fragments. And don’t you forget it.
At least one grammarian says we’ve been conjunctivizing sentence beginnings since the 10th century. Since there is not and apparently never has been an actual rule against it, the common speculation is that English teachers, despairing at endless run-on or fragmented sentences by neophytes simply banned the practice out of a sense of self-preservation. So it might be a good rule for kids who are still learning. You’re an adult. Grow up and accept the fact that your 7th grade teacher pulled one over on you – and stop beating up others who are, after all, merely writing proper English. Just don’t get carried away. Rein it in. Use it for effect. Or you’ll annoy. Everyone.
3. Thou shalt not split infinitives.
Not only are there no rational, logical or historical reasons not to split infinitives, this fable fails on a number of levels. First, most credible grammarians agree that it’s not possible to split an infinitive, since the word “to” is a preposition that merely points to the infinitive: the infinitive verb. There are endless examples where you can take away the “to” and the verb remains an infinitive: Picard helped them to go where no one had gone before. Or just helped them go. Even better: to boldly go. An English modifier wants to be as close as possible to the word it’s modifying. So put it there already.
4. Avoid all passive voice always.
Pshaw. Active voice generates power. Active voice drives thoughts and sentences onward. No one writes every sentence in active voice. It’s like painting a floor. If you don’t give yourself a passive outlet, you’ll soon find yourself in an inescapable corner. Linguist and cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker points out that no lesser lights than Strunk and White, among the most influential active voice advocates, deliver their admonition to write in active voice … in passive voice. We could talk about this one forever. Suffice it to say: Active is good. Active is admirable. Many flaccid, boring sentences can be rescued by simple conversion to active. But don’t knock yourself out trying to make every sentence active. You can’t do it.
So chuck the rules. Engage your senses. Good writing should flow and communicate. Surprise and delight. Tell you a story and compel you to listen. And most of all, get out of the way.