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What they taught you was wrong

As Will Rogers said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you. It’s what you know that ain’t so.”

We sometimes get complaints from our readers about things that are not wrong. Unfortunately, generations of English teachers have taught what H.W. Fowler termed “superstitions” or “fetishes” — “unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma.”

In Garner’s Modern American Usage, one of the most sensible and useful manuals on usage currently available, Bryan Garner presents his nominees for the top ten superstitions of English usage. Among them:

Never split an infinitive or a verb phrase (auxiliary form and main verb).

Never end a sentence with a preposition.   

Never begin a sentence with “and” or “but.”

Never use “since” to mean “because.”

These and other shibboleths have been embedded in grammar books for a long time, and their origins, which you can find described in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, are interesting. In the 18th century, when an emerging middle class was making money and coming into political power, it created a market for books on how to use English properly. The people who set the standards had, of course, been educated in Latin and Greek (English not having become a university subject until the end of the 19th century), and they thought that to be correct, English grammar had to follow the grammar of the classical languages. John Dryden, for example, saw that Latin sentences do not end with prepositions, and so he concluded that English sentences ought not.

English is complicated enough on its own. There’s no need to struggle over rules that are not really rules.    

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:26 AM | | Comments (1)
        

Comments

Hi. I'm a former Baltimorean working as a Japanese-to-English translator in Japan. I just discovered this excellent blog. It is interesting and entertaining reading, and besides, translators also have a professional interest in writing good English.

I have to wonder, however, if the comment about the middle class coming into political power and creating a market for books on English usage was a bit facile. The idea that a new political class would actively create such a market strikes me as too interpretative.

I can see, however, how money, rather than politics, would be an indirect factor. I would think that with the combination of spreading literacy and an emerging middle class, a market would naturally arise for such books in any society.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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