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Grammar Myths

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 1, Number 1, 2004, page 14)

Getting wet and chilled will give you a cold. People’s hair and nails continue to grow after death. Alligators live in the sewers beneath New York City. Aspartame is a dangerous disease-causing chemical.

If you believe any of these statements, then you’ve been had. They are urban legends, passed around from mouth to mouth—or, nowadays, via the Internet—until they acquire the armour of certainty, when underneath they are only so much fluff.

Myths have remarkable power, and that is as true in grammar as it is in life. Many well-educated, well-informed people hold fast to certain grammatical nuggets they’ve picked up along the way from colleagues, family members or teachers. "It’s incorrect to begin a sentence with however," they say. "It’s incorrect to split an infinitive or to end a sentence with a preposition." They are certain and secure in these rules. They are also wrong.

This article will debunk some of the most rampant myths of grammar—myths that have lured countless individuals, naive and knowing alike, into the quicksand of grammatical certainty.

MYTH: Never start a sentence with however.
FACT: It is, and has always been, grammatically acceptable to start a sentence with however.

I had a personal brush with this myth, which is why it’s number one on my hit list. As a grad student in English, I was docked marks by a professor who insisted that it was incorrect to start a sentence with however—something that, in the pseudo-scholarly deliberation of my essays, I did pretty often. That was news to me. Since I was teaching a first-year grammar course at the time, I decided I’d better investigate. What I found was a pile of grammar books that contradicted my prof. When I showed up at his office, books helpfully in tow, he waved them off, explaining that he had learned the rule from an Ivy League professor whose wisdom was unassailable. And he refused to change my grade.

Several years and countless grammar books later, and after hearing this unsupported rule from a surprising number of people, I was able to trace the myth to one small but highly influential book: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. In it, the authors say: "Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is ’nevertheless.’" Then follows an explanation that defies all logic, common sense and, most notably, actual rules of grammar.

The fact is that however, when it means "nevertheless," is a conjunctive adverb. All conjunctive adverbs (other favourites are therefore, moreover, furthermore, nonetheless) are grammatically capable of starting sentences. End of story.

Example: Strunk and White state that writers should avoid starting sentences with this conjunctive adverb. However, others do not agree with them.

MYTH: Never start a sentence with because.
FACT: It is, and has always been, grammatically acceptable to start a sentence with because.

This is probably the most common myth I hear during my grammar workshops. People often pick up this "rule" as schoolchildren, when teachers warn them not to begin answers with because because doing so often leads to sentence fragments: "Because of gravity." "Because he believed in the country." Many people then assume forever after that beginning a sentence with this word is wrong. The truth, however, is that if the fragment starting with because is attached to an independent clause (a complete thought), the sentence is fine.

Example: Because their teachers scolded them for starting sentences with this innocuous connector, many writers fear and even revile the introductory because.

MYTH: Never start a sentence with and, but or any other coordinating conjunction.
FACT: It is now grammatically acceptable to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.

Grammar books and authorities used to consider it an error to begin a sentence with any of the coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Yet English speakers and writers have been doing just that, according to some sources, since the 10th century. Modern grammar texts agree that it’s fine to start sentences with these conjunctions, though some warn against overdoing it, especially in very formal prose, because of the breezy, conversational style that it produces.

Example: Most skilled and careful writers and editors begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions from time to time. And so shall we.

MYTH: Never split an infinitive.
FACT: It is now grammatically acceptable to split an infinitive, particularly with a single word, for the sake of naturalness.

Like the and/but myth, this is an old rule that no longer applies. Today grammar texts concur that there’s nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive, even in very formal writing, as long as the interrupting modifier is short (usually just one word) and the split sounds natural. Some authorities point out that the old rule had no basis in English grammar anyway, that it stemmed from a desire to align English syntax with Latin. In fact, as we’ll see with the next myth, placing a modifier between the two parts of the infinitive is a natural thing to do in English.

Example: Edith, Biomed’s intrepid English editor, has decided to boldly split an infinitive whenever placing the modifier elsewhere would cause awkwardness or ambiguity.

MYTH: Never split a verb phrase.
FACT: When a modifier appears with a verb phrase, the most natural place for it is between the auxiliary and the main verb.

This myth, which may have grown up as a logical but erroneous offshoot of the "never split an infinitive" rule, is a misconception, pure and simple. It has always been acceptable, in fact preferable, to split a verb phrase with a modifier. If the verb phrase contains more than one auxiliary, the modifier is most at home after the first auxiliary.

Example: In the past Edith has often wondered why some of her colleagues insist on keeping verb phrases together, when the rhythm of the prose has almost certainly been ruined in the process.

MYTH: Never end a sentence with a preposition.
FACT: It is now grammatically acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition, particularly when doing so creates a more natural-sounding sentence.

Like never splitting an infinitive, this is an old rule, once steadfastly cited by sticklers, now as outmoded as a Wang computer. Like the split infinitive rule, this one seems to have entered English grammar through Latin.

Example: Remarking on this rule, Winston Churchill once said, "This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put."

In the spirit of Churchill, we’ll look at more arrant pedantry we shouldn’t put up with in the next issue of Language Update, when we’ll debunk some common usage myths.

Sources:

Strunk, William Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 2000.

"Urban Legends Reference Pages" (www.snopes.com).