Vexatious Grammar: What’s Your Rule About Rules That Aren’t Really Rules?

 When those who spend their lives writing and evaluating the writing of others don’t always agree on the rules of grammar, it’s easy to empathize with students who want to get it right but aren’t always sure what “right” is.

It’s one thing to not know or not follow a rule. It’s quite another when Expert A asserts “You must follow this rule,” but Expert B says “Not only do you not have to follow that rule, it’s not really a rule.”

Consider three classic examples of this conundrum: Never begin a sentence with a conjunction, never end a sentence with a preposition, and never split an infinitive.

One can occasionally argue style when it comes to these “rules,” but none of the three has a logical leg to stand on. (Yes, we know what we just did there!) Not splitting infinitives in order to make English look like Latin—a language in which infinitives cannot be split, of course—is the silliest of the bunch. (English grammar differs from Latin in numerous ways; why did the Victorian grammarians jump on this particular point?)

Uncritically following these “rules” can produce clumsy or stilted writing, and following them just to avoid the derision of people who are convinced these rules exist is a waste of creative energy. Worst of all, these distracting tempests-in-teapots make writing seem more difficult than it is and trivialize the real rules that really do need to be followed.

Having said that, it’s impossible to ignore the potential consequences of not following these “rules” in academia or the business world. Perhaps we can only hope that one day the misguided ghosts of grammarians past who created these problems will finally fall silent.

How do you advise your students to resolve these dilemmas in their writing?


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