Language Myths

The Living Dead

The house of grammar has many rooms, and some of them are haunted. Despite the best efforts of grammatical exorcists, the ghosts of dead rules and the spirits of imaginary taboos are still rattling and thumping about the old place.

Sometimes an ancient prohibition becomes outdated, or it may turn out that a musty convention was never really a rule at all. The trouble is that these phantoms are hard to displace, once they take hold in our minds. It’s no longer considered a crime to split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition, for example, but the specters of bogus or worn-out rules have a way of coming back to haunt us. In the interest of laying a few to rest, we dedicate to each a tombstone, complete with burial service. May they rest in peace.

(For more about these and other language myths, check out our books.)

Let Bygone Rules Be Gone

TOMBSTONE: Don’t split an infinitive.

R.I.P. An infinitive is a verb in its simplest form, right out of the box. It can usually be recognized by the word to in front of it: Blackbeard helped him to escape. But the to isn’t actually part of the infinitive and isn’t always necessary: Blackbeard helped him escape. As a preposition, a word that positions other words, the to lets us know an infinitive is coming.

The truth is that the phrase “split infinitive” is misleading. Since to isn’t really part of the infinitive, there’s nothing to split. A sentence often sounds better when the to is close to the infinitive: Dilbert decided to mention dating in the workplace. But there’s no harm in separating them by putting a descriptive word or two in between: Dilbert decided to discreetly mention dating in the workplace.

A sentence like that sounds natural because in English, the best place for an adverb (like discreetly) is right in front of the word it describes (mention). Where else could discreetly go? Putting it anywhere else—say, before or after decided or dating—would change the meaning. So go ahead and split, but don’t overdo it. Not: Dilbert decided to discreetly and without referring to the boss’s secretary mention dating in the workplace. 

Sometimes, rewriting a sentence to avoid a “split” makes it ridiculous. Try rearranging the words in this example: Kiri’s landlord wanted to flatly forbid singing. Or this one: He threatened to more than double her rent. Or this: The landlord is expected to strongly oppose weaker noise regulations. See what we mean?

Writers of English have been merrily “splitting” infinitives since the 1300s. It was perfectly acceptable until the mid-nineteenth century, when Latin scholars—notably Henry Alford in his book A Plea for the Queen’s English—misguidedly called it a crime. (Some linguists trace the taboo to the Victorians’ slavish fondness for Latin, a language in which you can’t divide an infinitive.) This “rule” was popular for half a century, until leading grammarians debunked it. But its ghost has proved more durable than Freddie Krueger.

TOMBSTONE: It’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.

R.I.P Here’s another bugaboo that English teachers used to get worked up over.

We can blame an eighteenth-century English clergyman and Latin scholar named Robert Lowth for saddling us with this one. He wrote the first popular grammar book to say that a preposition (a positioning word, like at, by, for, into, off, on, out, over, to, under, up, with) shouldn’t go at the end of a sentence. This idea caught on, even though great literature from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Milton is bristling with sentences ending in prepositions. Nobody knows why the notion stuck—possibly because it’s closer to Latin grammar, or perhaps because the word preposition means “position before,” which seems to suggest that a preposition shouldn’t come last.

At any rate, this is a rule that modern grammarians have long tried to get us out from under.

TOMBSTONE: Data and media are strictly plural nouns and always take plural verbs.

R.I.P. It’s time to admit that data has joined agenda, erotica, insignia, opera, stamina, and other technically plural Latin and Greek words that have become thoroughly Anglicized as singular nouns taking singular verbs. No plural form is necessary, and the old singular, datum, can be left to the Romans.

As for media, it’s singular when you mean the world of mass communications, which is most of the time. The media was in a frenzy. But it’s occasionally used as a plural to refer to the individual kinds of communication. The media present were TV, radio, newspapers, and the blogosphere. The singular in that sense is medium. The liveliest medium of all is the blogosphere.

TOMBSTONE: Always put the subject of a sentence before the verb.

R.I.P. Says who? Tell it to Tennyson (“Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred”). He didn’t mind putting his subject (the six hundred) after the verb (rode).

True, most of the time a sentence with its subject (the one doing the action) before the verb (the action being done) sounds more forceful and direct than one written the other way around. Edgar was more mysterious is punchier than More mysterious was Edgar. But every now and then it’s appropriate to put the verb first (Says who? for instance), and literature is full of poetic examples of verbs preceding their subjects. (Just ask Edgar: “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’ ”)

TOMBSTONE: It’s wrong to start a sentence with and or but.

R.I.P. But why is it wrong? There’s no law against occasionally using and or but to begin a sentence.

Over the years, some English teachers have enforced the notion that and and but should be used only to join elements within a sentence, not to join one sentence with another. Not so. It’s been common practice to begin sentences with them since at least as far back as the tenth century. But don’t overdo it or your writing will sound monotonous.

TOMBSTONE: Use than I in comparisons, not than me.

R.I.P. The eighteenth-century schoolmasters strike again! They were the first to condemn sentences like Percy is older than me, insisting on older than I. Why? Because they decided that than shouldn’t be used as a preposition.

However, for over five hundred years great writers and ordinary people alike have treated than as a preposition. And prepositions are usually followed by me, him, her, them, us, and other object pronouns.

Today, authorities recognize that than can be used as either a preposition or a conjunction.

As a preposition, it’s followed by an object pronoun (Percy is older than me). As a conjunction, it’s followed by a subject pronoun (Percy is older than I), or you can add the understood verb if you like (Percy is older than I am).

Both uses of than—preposition and conjunction—are correct. The only difference is that ending a sentence with a subject pronoun (like I) sounds stiffer and more formal than ending it with an object pronoun (like me).

In more complicated comparisons, though, a solitary pronoun after than—as in Percy trusts Eustace more than me—can be misleading. If so, just stretch the sentence out to make your meaning clear: Percy trusts Eustace more than he trusts me. Or: Percy trusts Eustace more than I do.

TOMBSTONE: Don’t split the parts of a verb phrase (like has been).

R.I.P. This has never been a legitimate rule. It’s a by-product of the famous superstition about splitting an infinitive (see the first tombstone).

TOMBSTONE: None is always singular.

R.I.P. Not always. In fact, none is more likely to be plural.

Many people seem to have been taught (mistakenly) that none always means “not one” (as in, None of the chickens is hatched). But most authorities have always believed that none is closer in meaning to “not any (of them)” than to “not one (of them).” So it’s considered plural in most cases and takes a plural verb: None of the chickens are hatched.

None is singular only when it means “none of it”—that is to say, “no amount.” (None of the milk was spilled.)

If you really do mean “not one,” say “not one.”

TOMBSTONE: Don’t use whose to refer to inanimate objects.

R.I.P. Here’s a musty old custom whose time is up. There’s nothing wrong with using the possessive whose for inanimate objects. Never buy a car whose odometer doesn’t work.

A related misconception is that you shouldn’t use ’s with inanimate things (as in This car’s odometer is broken). Apparently, the thinking goes, inanimate things aren’t as possessive as living ones. Silly, right? Well, this book’s position is that yesterday’s custom can be safely ignored.

TOMBSTONE: Use It is I, not It is me.

R.I.P. Here’s another ordinance that’s out of date. You can use It is (or It’s) me, That’s him, It’s her, and similar constructions instead of the also correct but much stuffier It is I, That’s he, and It’s she.

Similarly, it’s fine to say Me too. The alternative, I too, is still grammatically correct, but unless you’re addressing the Supreme Court or the Philological Society, you can drop the formality.

TOMBSTONE: Never use who when the rules call for whom.

R.I.P. We can’t dump whom entirely, at least not just yet. But modern grammarians believe that in conversation or informal writing, who is acceptable in place of whom at the beginning of a sentence or clause (a clause is a group of words with its own subject and verb): Who’s the package for? You’ll never guess who I ran into the other day.

Where whom should be used after a preposition (to, from, behind, on, etc.), you can substitute who in casual situations by reversing the order and putting who in front. “From whom?” becomes “Who from?

TOMBSTONE: Never use that instead of who to refer to people.

R.I.P. Despite what you may have heard, a person can be either a that or a who. In fact, that has been used for people as well as animals and inanimate things for some eight hundred years, and it’s standard English. The girl that married dear old Dad was Mom.

A thing, however, is always a that. He took her on a Paris honeymoon that broke the bank. Fortunately, it was a bank that allowed overdrafts.

TOMBSTONE: Always use an active verb and avoid a passive one.

R.I.P. It’s true that a passive verb (The getaway was driven by Bonnie) makes for a wimpier, more roundabout sentence than an active one (Bonnie drove the getaway car). The more straightforward sentence puts the one performing the action (Bonnie) ahead of the one being acted upon (the getaway car), with the verb in between: subject . . . verb . . . object.

But the direct route isn’t always the best route. The passive might be more appropriate in cases like these.

• When there’s a punch line. You might want to place the one performing the action at the end of the sentence for emphasis or surprise: The gold medal in the five-hundred-​meter one-​man bobsled competition has been won by a six-​year-​old child!

• When nobody cares whodunit. Sometimes the one performing the action isn’t even mentioned: Witherspoon is being treated for a gunshot wound, and Hermione has been arrested. We don’t need to know who’s stitching up Witherspoon or who put the cuffs on Hermione.

TOMBSTONE: Never use a double negative.

R.I.P. My advice on double negatives: Never say never.

The double negative wasn’t always a no-no. For centuries, it was fine to pile one negative on top of another in the same sentence. Chaucer and Shakespeare did this all the time to accentuate the negative. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the double negative was declared a sin against the King’s English, on the ground that one negative canceled the other. (Blame Robert Lowth, the same guy who decided we shouldn’t put a preposition at the end of a sentence. He could have saved us all a lot of trouble by going into a different line of work.)

As for now, stay away from the most flagrant examples of the classic double negative (I didn’t do nothingYou never take me nowhere), but don’t write off the double negative completely. It’s handy when you want to avoid coming right out and saying something: Your blind date is not unattractive. I wouldn’t say I don’t like your new haircut.

TOMBSTONE: Don’t use I will in place of I shall.

R.I.P. Once upon a time, refined folk always used I shall or we shall to refer to the simple future, not I will or we will. But will has edged out shall as the people’s choice. Shall is still used with I and we, however, in a polite offer or proposal: Shall I freshen your drink, or shall we go?

TOMBSTONE: Use more than instead of over.

R.I.P. You may have been told by some pedant that over doesn’t apply to numbers, only to quantities. Not so. It’s fine to use over in place of more than or in excess of. The belief that this is wrong is a widespread misconception concocted by nineteenth-century newspaper editors. Dad’s new car gets over ten miles to the gallon.

TOMBSTONE: Don’t use since to mean “because.”

R.I.P. Now and then, an extremely conservative grammarian will suggest that since should be used only to indicate a time period (since Thursday, for example). Forget that, if you ever heard it. Since doesn’t always mean “between now and” or “from the time that.” It can also mean “because” or “for the reason that.” Since you asked me, I’ll tell you. People have been using since in this way for over five hundred years.

Just be sure the meaning can’t be confused, as in Since we spoke, I’ve had second thoughts. In that case, since could mean either “from the time that” or “because,” so it’s better to be more precise.

TOMBSTONE: Don’t use while to mean “although.”

R.I.P. In the past, some grammarians believed that while, which comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “time,” should be used only to mean “during the time that.”

But there’s a long tradition, going back at least to the sixteenth century, of using while at the head of a sentence or a clause to mean “although” or “whereas”: While he may be short, he’s wiry.

Just be sure the meaning can’t be confused, as in While he reads the Times, he watches the news on CNN. In this case, while could mean either “during the time that” or “although.” Pick one of those and avoid the confusion.

One more thing about while. Some people overuse it as a way to vary their sentences and avoid using and. Let’s not wear out a useful word for no good reason. If while isn’t meant, don’t use it. Not: Wally wears suspenders, while his favorite shoes are wingtips.

TOMBSTONE: Use lighted, not lit.

R.I.P. There’s nothing wrong with using lit for the past tense of light: Paul lit two cigarettes, then gave one to Bette.

By the way, many people also turn up their noses at dove instead of dived, and at snuck instead of sneaked. But times change and so does English. Dictionaries now accept both dove and snuck, but we wouldn’t recommend snuck in formal writing.

TOMBSTONE: Use have got, not have gotten.

R.I.P. People who take this prohibition seriously have gotten their grammar wrong.

At one time, everyone agreed that the verb get had two past participles: got and gotten. (The past participle is the form of a verb that’s used with have, had, or has.) It’s true that the British stopped using have gotten about 300 years ago, while we in the Colonies kept using both have got and have gotten. But the result is not that Americans speak improper English. The result is that we have retained a nuance of meaning that the unfortunate Britons have lost.

When we say, Fabio has got three Armani suits, we mean he has them in his possession. It’s another way of saying that he has or owns them.

When we say, Fabio has gotten three Armani suits, we mean that he has acquired or has obtained them.

It’s a very useful distinction, and one that the British would do well to reacquire.

TOMBSTONE: Drop the of in all of and both of.

R.I.P. Some members of the Redundancy Police think of is undesirable in the phrases all of and both of, except in front of a pronoun (all of me, both of them, etc.). They frown on sentences like Both of the thieves spent all of the money, and would prefer Both the thieves spent all the money.

Either way is correct. There’s no law against keeping of, but by all means drop it if you want to. You can’t please all of the people all the time.

TOMBSTONE: Don’t start a sentence with there.

R.I.P. There is no doubt that a statement starting with there begins on a weak note. It’s weak because there is a phantom subject, standing in for the real one. There is a party going on is a different way of saying, A party is going on. The real subject in both cases is party.

Some English teachers frown on starting a sentence with there, possibly because they prefer keeping the real subject before the verb. Never mind. There’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, literature is full of splendid examples: There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”

TOMBSTONE: Don’t say “Go slow” instead of “Go slowly.”

R.I.P. Both slow and slowly are legitimate adverbs. In fact, slow has been a perfectly acceptable adverb since the days of Shakespeare and Milton.

Adverbs can come with or without ly, and many, like slow and slowly, exist in both forms. Those without the tails are called “flat adverbs,” and we use them all the time in phrases where they follow a verb: “sit tight,” “go straight,” “turn right,” “work hard,” “arrive late,” “rest easy,” “sing sharp (or flat)” “aim high,” “play fair,” “come close,” and “think fast.” Yes, straight, right, hard, and the rest are bona fide adverbs and have been for many centuries.

TOMBSTONE: Don’t use they to refer to everybody or someone.

R.I.P. In today’s English, there’s nothing wrong with a sentence like Everybody can eat what they want or Someone left their carry‑on in the overhead bin.

English speakers quite normally use they and its other forms (them, their, themselves) to refer to an indefinite subject—an unknown person or persons of unknown gender. Today the best authorities agree that this usage is not only natural but grammatically correct. So good English does not require awkward he or she substitutes (Everybody can eat what he or she wants; Someone left his or her carry‑on in the overhead bin).

For a couple of centuries, this use of they was regarded as bad English. The objection was that they is plural while the indefinite pronouns—everybody, anyone, somebody, nobody, and so on—are grammatically singular. (After all, we use such pronouns with singular verbs: Everyone goes, not Everyone go.) This explains why generations of schoolchildren were taught to use he instead of they for an unknown somebody‑or‑other. Recently, the clunky but more inclusive he or she has become common.

But there was never a need to avoid they. Since the 1300s, long before anybody objected, people consistently used they for an indefinite person. And they never stopped, despite the naysayers.  Why?

Because words like everyone and nobody and somebody don’t mean just one. They’re technically singular but they’re psychologically plural, since their meaning is “all people,” “no people,” “some people,” and so on. Modern grammarians now recognize what ordinary speakers knew all along—there’s no conflict in using they, them, their, and themselves to refer to an indefinite word that has a plural feeling.

In fact, this isn’t the only case of a pronoun changing its spots. You was originally plural, and used only as an object, not a subject. There were once four forms of the word: thou, ye, thee, and you. Over time, the four forms were combined into one all-purpose you.

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