Five Grammar Myths... and What You Should Do About Them
13 February, 2010
From the first time you handed in an essay to your teacher, people have been checking your grammar. But in many cases, they've been checking it incorrectly. This article looks at five so-called 'rules' that are not actually rules at all. Then it reviews if, and when, you should follow them anyway.
Myth 1: You must not split infinitives
Some people say that 'to boldly go' is grammatically incorrect because the word 'boldly' appears between 'to' and 'go'. However, there is no such rule in English. The notion is based on a misplaced 19th century idea that English must follow Latin (where the infinitive cannot be split because it is one word).
Myth 2: You cannot use 'they' or 'them' to describe an individual
English doesn't have a gender-neutral singular pronoun. In other words, where a person's gender is not known, there is no equivalent to 'he' or 'she' that can be used to describe the person. As a result, some people prefer the sentence:
'Somebody ate my sandwich, and he/she should pay for it' to the sentence
'Somebody ate my sandwich, and they should pay for it'.
But in spoken English, most people would say the latter. Just because the word 'somebody' implies a single person, it doesn't mean we all must switch to 'he/she' when we're writing.
Myth 3: You cannot start a sentence with 'and' or 'but'
There is no grammatical reason why it's wrong to start sentences with either 'and' or 'but'. For example, the sentence:
'And they lived happily ever after' begins with 'and'. Some people may not like the style, but there are times when it can help to add emphasis. Authors have been starting sentences with 'and' and 'but' in English for hundreds of years, so there is no reason not to use 'and' or 'but' as long as the result is still a full sentence.
Myth 4: You cannot end a sentence with a preposition
As with split infinitives, this 'rule' date backs to Latin. But it has no place in English. For example, the sentence:
'Who is that you are with?' is neither better nor worse than
'Who is that with you?'
Myth 5: You cannot use none with a plural
'None' sometimes takes the singular and sometimes the plural. This can be thought of as the distinction between using 'none' to signify 'not one' (where it takes the singular) and using it to signify 'not any' (where it takes the plural). For example:
'None of them want sugar' can actually be understood as 'not any', so the plural form of the verb is used ('want' rather than 'wants').
The One Rule That Actually Matters
English doesn't have an academy to set rules for language usage and grammar. And you don't need to obey arbitrary rules like the myths above when you write. However, you do need to think about the context in which you are writing and ensure you meet your readers' needs.
If you're writing a formal document, then you may want to adopt a more formal style by not starting sentences with 'and'. It's also possible that your client, boss or editor may prefer writing that follows any one of these myths. And if you're writing a bid document or research proposal, do you want to risk raising the hackles of your examiner with a grammar technicality? If your examiner doesn't like it, you won't get the chance to explain why there's nothing wrong with a split infinitive. The best approach is to properly check through your document. Take the time to fully proofread your text and consider these points on a case-by-case basis.