English is a fascinating language, and one with many interesting facets. However, did you know that some of the interesting foibles that we’re taught in school are actually total fallacies?
It’s true! And in most cases, the truth is far more straightforward than fiction. So without further ado, let’s dive right in.
1. “Don’t Split Infinitives”
Before we explore this, we need to establish that the infinitive version of a verb in English is usually expressed as “to go,” “to sit,” “to watch,” etc. Therefore a split infinitive occurs when you use the word “to,” then an adverb (a descriptive word suffixed with “-ly”), and then a regular verb; and many hardcore grammarians will tell you never to split an infinitive. One of the most famous examples of a split infinitive is:
To boldly go where no one has gone before.
Though many cite this as grammatically incorrect, there is simply no basis for this in the Oxford Style Guide.
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Like many of the myths on this list, it’s not absolutely known how this rule came about, but there does seem to be one prevailing theory. The Latin versions of infinitive verbs are expressed in one word (rather than English’s “to sit” two-word style) and are therefore “unsplittable.” It may have been argued by Latin-loving English scholars in the 1700s that the English versions should not be split either; you can’t do it in Latin so you shouldn’t do it in English. Because y’know… reasons.
But we’re talking about English – a hybrid Germanic language – which is definitely not Latin. In addition, the “to” part is not technically part of the infinitive verb, so it could be argued that you’re not really splitting anything that isn’t already in two parts. There’s simply no precedent in place that says not to. “To boldly go…” is absolutely fine in modern English usage. And if it’s good enough for Starfleet, it’s good enough for me.
2. “Don’t Start a Sentence with a Conjunction (And, But, If, etc.)”
Some people recoil at the thought of starting a sentence with “and” or “but,” or any other connecting word (known as a “conjunction”). However, the rule that states “don’t start a sentence with a conjunction” simply doesn’t exist in any English style manuals.
The Oxford Dictionary Website states:
You might have been taught that it’s not good English to start a sentence with a conjunction such as “and” or “but”. It’s not grammatically incorrect to do so, however, and many respected writers use conjunctions at the start of a sentence to create a dramatic or forceful effect.
Though it’s perfectly OK to start a sentence in this way, the OED states also that ”it’s best not to overdo it.”
3. “No Commas before Conjunctions.”
Most of us may have been taught not to put a comma before a conjunction – usually in the context of “and” or “or”. However, when punctuating a list of 3 or more items, an oxford comma (also sometimes called a serial comma) can come in really handy, though it is totally optional. The name “Oxford” comes from the fact that the style originated from the Oxford University Press.
It is used to avoid ambiguity and confusion when writing a list within a piece of text. Though not true of all such lists, some clarity can be lost when not using an Oxford comma. For example:
Without Oxford Comma: “We invited the dancers, Hillary Clinton and Karl Pilkington.”
Which could imply that Hillary Clinton and Karl Pilkington have got a side gig as dancers and that you invited them to dance at your function. Compare for clarity:
With Oxford Comma: “We invited the dancers, Hillary Clinton, and Karl Pilkington.”
This version is far clearer, but as with some uses of the Oxford comma, clarity can be added simply by rephrasing:
“We invited Hillary Clinton, Karl Pilkington and the dancers.”
The usage of the Oxford comma isn’t necessarily right or wrong, but the OED states that the most important thing to remember when using the Oxford comma is to use it consistently or not at all – don’t mix it up within the same document. In short: pick a side and stick to it.
4. “I before E, except after C.”
There are so many exceptions to this rule, as well as additional caveats that people have added over the years to try and make it work, that by now it’s simply worth abandoning altogether. This Mental Floss article hits the nail right on the head, and explains the whole situation about how the rule came to be. Let’s take a look at a few examples that break the rule:
In summary, the OED notes that the most straightforward way to remember the spellings to these words is to simply learn them as you would any other word and ignore the tricks.
5. “Don’t End a Sentence with a Preposition.”
This is the commonly held belief that prepositions such as “for,” “on,” “off,” under,” and “at” should not be placed at the end of a sentence, and prepositions placed in such a way are often pejoratively referred to as “dangling prepositions.” Some examples of preposition dangling are as follows:
Who are you going with?
The speedway was rained off.
He’s got some new music to listen to.
There is simply no need to avoid this. Some may attempt to reword the first two examples to:
With whom are you going?
Rained off was the speedway.
I have no idea where to start with rewording the third one without going too far down the Yoda route, but it turns out I’m in luck. The simple truth is that rewording it is simply not necessary. It’s a perfectly acceptable use of the English language, and desperately trying to avoid it can lead to overly complicated examples such as this one from the OED website:
They must be convinced of the commitment they are taking on.
Of the commitment they are taking on they must be convinced.
This is another example of English grammatical fallacy that may originate from forced borrowing from Latin construction. Hey, even the title of this very article ends with a preposition! Feel free to dangle with abandon!