Our teachers lied to us: the grammar “rules” we were taught are wrong 56



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Our teachers were lying to us. They had our best intentions at heart, the same way our parents did when they told us about Santa Claus. But they were lying all the same.

It turns out the English language doesn’t have nearly as many iron-clad rules as we were raised to believe. Which of these have followed? Which of these have you ignored? And which are you most glad to see stricken from the record?

You CAN begin a sentence with “and”.
You are absolutely, emphatically allowed to begin with conjunctions like “and”. “But”, “or” and “also” are also fair game. This rule is taught by teachers mainly to discourage kids from writing in short fragments. It can be a great habit to encourage, but it certainly isn’t a rule. And sometimes it’s just nice to make exceptions.

If you find yourself with a sentence that’s too long, don’t hesitate to break it up with a full stop – chances are the extra rhythm and breathing space will make it far more readable than if you had done it the “proper” way.

You CAN end a sentence with a preposition.
“Where did you come from?” “What are you looking at?” “It’s the stuff dreams are made of.”
Have you ever had a pedantic grammar nut correct you for ending a sentence this way? Prepare to feel smug.

From where did this rule come? The often-awkward “correct” way (“It is the stuff of which dreams are made”) – is actually a rule from Latin grammar that inexplicably made the jump into English. While many Latin rules still shape our language, this one isn’t necessary, nor is it particularly well suited to our modern-day use of language.

In short: we’ve been forced to sound needlessly pompous for years.

If it can be changed without altering comprehension, by all means, avoid ending a sentence this way. If it muddies up the meaning or makes things more complicated? As Winston Churchill famously said: “That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put!”

You CAN split infinitives
This particularly stuffy and confusing old rule tell us that terms like “to write” and “to walk” cannot be split up with adverbs (“to furiously write”, “to quickly walk”).

However, it was never originally given as a rule; the writer who suggested it in 1864 simply stated that it was in poor taste. While many people have since taken his advice to heart, and there are many who still go out of their way to avoid split infinitives, there’s really no harm in it.

You CAN use double negatives.
This rule was probably given to stop schoolkids saying “I didn’t do nothing”. It can, however, also be used very poetically. In fact, Shakespeare used double negatives frequently.

“I couldn’t not eat that cake” has far more meaning than “I could eat that cake”. “He is not unattractive” suggests something coy and subtle and interesting than “he’s attractive”. If it adds meaning, nuance or fun to your statement, you’re not wholly unentitled to use double negatives.

You CAN ignore the rules
There is no single organisation or person who decides the rules of English. Rules, words and standards inevitably change. The purpose of dictionaries and style guides is to notice and document these changes as they happen, not decide what is write or wrong.

Instead, it’s all about context and what is appropriate. Schools and workplaces will insist on writing a specific way for consistency, as is their right. But outside these organisations’ walls, you are free to use the language whichever way you like.

Which of these grammar myths have you followed? Which have you ignored? And which are you most glad to see stricken from the record? Leave a comment below!

Starts at 60 Writers

The Starts at 60 writers team seek out interesting topics and write them especially for you.

  1. Ha ha I am at Italian language school in Florence, you ought to try the Italian grammar !!

  2. And for us Aussies it depended which state you lived in. As far as I can remember Victoria and Queensland school systems were based on the Irish system and NSW, Tasmania, SA & WA were based on the English system.

    So for me in Queensland my schooling was Maths Science and manual arts oriented. I remember several of the students who had moved from NSW to Qld during the year were ahead in English and way behind in Maths & Science.

    When I went back ten years later as an adult student in NSW to do the HSC I enjoyed the English and Geography as it opened up areas I had not studied. But then it may have been the passion and quality of the teachers who were teaching us.

  3. Oh yes and Santa Claus. The big man in the red and white suite was the figment of the imagination of the marketers at Coca Cola in 1934 and they shot adds for two years as they were worried the actor they had may not be alive the following year.

  4. It’s nice to know that not only does our language grow and change, but that our expression of it can do the same. I always wondered who made all the rules!! I guess so long as your meaning cannot be misconstrued, it’s okay.

    2 REPLY
    • No, they haven’t thrown out the rules. I think they are just more relaxed. I can remember when my boys started school and I was correcting their homework, I was horrified by their spelling and sloppy story construction. I spoke to their teacher about it, and was told than he didn’t care about anything except that they get their thoughts on paper. He didn’t feel the need for correct spelling or proper grammar. He told me that could come later. My boys have grown up and have their own children, but I am not sure I am over it all. In one way, I think I understand. We need to communicate, but the message must be clear, even if not also grammatically correct. I’m sure you put all your knowledge to good use every day.

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