The Grammarphobia Blog

To err or not to err

Q: I was reading about grammar myths in Woe Is I and got to thinking about the SATs. Should a high-school student taking the writing portion play it safe and adhere to the myths that are still being taught?

A: This is a difficult one!

To get some guidance, I googled a few SAT-help websites to see what they were saying about such myths as the no-nos against “splitting” an infinitive, ending a sentence with a preposition, and beginning one with a conjunction.

The good news is that the “help” sites generally agree with me that these are indeed bogus rules. And the grammar and usage issues that they consider errors do seem to be real errors.

The sites suggest boning up on subject-verb agreement, correct pronoun use (particularly the notorious “I” vs. “me” problem), and correct use of adjectives and adverbs.

They also recommend brushing up on usage (for example, word pairs that are commonly confused, like “affect” and “effect”), verb tenses and how to use them logically, punctuation, avoiding run-on sentences, parallel structure, and so on.

All of these are legitimate and useful things to know about English composition, not outdated or imaginary bugaboos.

Nevertheless, one never knows who’s going to be evaluating the essay, and something like an SAT score is too important to risk out of principle.

I’d suggest that a student writing an essay for any kind of college-entrance test should avoid flouting the mythological rules, even if they are stupid and mistaken conventions. It’s usually easy enough to write around these problems without turning a sentence on its head.

Is this a cop-out? Of course! But the idea is to get into college. After graduation, the students can exercise the courage of their convictions.

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