Zapping Three Grammar Myths

I learned a few things in grammar school. For example, I learned that boys shouldn’t dip girls’ pigtails into the inkwells. I lived near the Little House on the Prairie then and went to third grade with “Half Pint” Ingalls. Okay, maybe not, but my ancient schoolhouse in Moorhead, Minnesota, did have desks with inkwells—dried up, yes, but I could still fantasize about dipping Half Pint’s pigtails into the inky blackness on my desk. Naughty little fantasizer! Something to be punished for. 

 I learned the hard way not to push friends down the cement steps while waiting in line to go back to class after recess—because, supposedly, friends don’t appreciate that. Oh, bother!

 I also learned not to run into the classroom coat closet to escape from the acrid smell of vomit when a classmate heaves his entire lunch onto his desk and the floor—because not all 30 panicked kids can fit in a coat closet filled with Minnesota-winter coats, mittens, and snow boots. Such things can trigger lifelong bouts of claustrophobia.

 It’s strange to think that this could come from a grammar school: I vaguely remember learning a couple of things about grammar somewhere in my youth or childhood. I learned how improper it was to begin a sentence with a conjunction, or to split my infinitives, or to end a sentence with a preposition. I have no specific memory of these heavenly dictums, but everyone from my generation simply knows such proscriptions are writ large in the canon of divine grammar and must be avoided on penalty of death. I never actually saw a student receive that penalty. Apparently, some teachers stopped short of killing their students. Instead, they rapped their knuckles with a ruler, which explains why most adults hate grammar.

Nonetheless, what a joy to grow up and learn that Miss Grundy may have gotten a few things wrong in the dark days of the Grammatical Inquisition. Today, I am going to take my trusty keyboard and explode three grammar myths. ZAP! There, it’s done. Too simple, you say? Let me explain:

#1: It is okay to begin a sentence with a conjunction!

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, a conjunction is “a word that joins together sentences, clauses, phrases, or words.” The seven most common conjunctions are for, and, nor, ZAP_2but, or, yet, and so. (So you can recall them, remember the acronym FANBOYS.) Edward Good, in Who’s (Oops) Whose Grammar Book Is This Anyway, writes, “Never start a sentence with a conjunction. Poppycock! Not only can you start sentences with a conjunction, but you must–if you ever want to become a good writer, that is” (p. 157). Bill Walsh cautions, “Starting a sentence with a conjunction is a literary device that can be overused. And it can be annoying. But there’s nothing inherently evil about it” (The Elephants of Style, p. 67).

#2: Go ahead and split your infinitives!

An infinitive is composed of to plus a verb (e.g., to eat, to study, to go). Splitting an infinitive is to put a word (or words) between the to and the verb, as in “to clearly see.” Garner’s Modern American Usage says, “Although few armchair grammarians seem to know it, some split infinitives are regarded as perfectly proper” (p. 767). As far back as 1916, professor James C. POW_2Fernald wrote, “Many grammarians hold that an adverb should never come between the to of the infinitive and the verb for; as, to faithfully study. Others give this usage a qualified approval. It is found in some good authors, and is becoming very prevalent” (English Grammar Simplified, p. 84). Bill Walsh goes so far as to say that he knows of “no usage authorities who believe that split infinitives are always wrong. . . . More often than not . . . infinitives are better split” (The Elephants of Style, p. 64). How do you know when it’s okay to split an infinitive? Let your ear tell you. But be careful not to allow too many words to intervene between the to and the verb or it can make it difficult for your readers to follow. I boldly quote Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, who said, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” The infinitive is split, but it sounds so right.

#3: And while you’re at it, feel free to end your sentence with a preposition!

Prepositions are words like about, in, onto, of, for, and with. Edward Good says that “great writers have been ending sentences and clauses with prepositions for centuries (p. 171). For example, “I Kapowpushed my friend down the steps after recess. What was I thinking of?” It would just sound too stuffy to write, “Of what was I thinking?” Grammarians recommend that you not overdo this in formal writing, but again—if it makes sense and sounds right, indulge yourself.

There, isn’t it liberating to be set free from three grammar myths in one sitting? You are welcome!

(Please “like” or comment below—if for no other reason than that I’ll know I’m not writing solely for myself and the dog. Thanks.)

© 2018 by Dean M. Christensen. All rights reserved.

Author: Dean Christensen

Educator, copyeditor, writer, voiceover guy, baseball bug, word lover, book hound, classical music aficionado, appreciator of classic rock 'n' roll and classic movies, former this, used-to-be that, and future who-knows-what. Every day is an adventure in learning.

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