The grammar rules you thought you knew could be wrong

We were all taught grammar at school, from the simple rules about where to put commas to the rule that
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We were all taught grammar at school, from the simple rules about where to put commas to the rule that you can’t start a sentence with the words And or But.

Many of us would argue that today’s generation probably needs to learn more about grammar.

But, it turns out some of these grammar rules might not be correct.

Misty Adoniou, a language professor at the University of Canberra, has penned a piece for The Conversation about the grammar rules many of us learned at school.

In the article, she writes about the two types of “grammarians”, the prescriptivists who think a sentence should be structured one way and the descriptivists who believe there are many ways English can be used by different people with different writing styles.

Dr Adoniou challenges five different grammar rules, arguing why they’re not necessarily right.

The first rule she challenges is the rule about starting sentences with words such as And or But.

“Those who say it is always incorrect to start a sentence with a conjunction, like “and” or “but”, sit in the prescriptivist camp,” she writes.

“However, according to the descriptivists, at this point in our linguistic history, it is fine to start a sentence with a conjunction in an op-ed article like this, or in a novel or a poem.

“It is less acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction in an academic journal article, or in an essay for my son’s high school economics teacher, as it turns out. But times are changing.”

Adoniou also argues that you can end a sentence with a preposition such as the word With, something many of us were taught not to do.

“According to this rule, it is wrong to say “Who did you go to the movies with?”,”she writes.

“Instead, the prescriptivists would have me say “With whom did you go to the movies?”

“That is why we should teach grammar in schools. We need to give our children a full repertoire of language so that they can make grammatical choices that will allow them to speak and write for a wide range of audiences.”

Remember the old rule about putting a comma wherever you need to take a breath?

Well, Adoniou isn’t so sure that’s right either.

“It’s a novel idea, synchronising your writing with your breathing, but the two have nothing to do with one another and if this is the instruction we give our children, it is little wonder commas are so poorly used,” she writes.

She also challenges the idea that you should use adjectives to make your sentences more descriptive – quoting Mark Twain to argue her point.

“American writer Mark Twain had it right,” she writes. “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.”

“If you want your writing to be more descriptive, play with your sentence structure.”

What about adverbs?

You know, those words you were taught ended in ‘ly’.

Well, they don’t all end in ‘ly’, according to Adoniou.

“Adverbs give more information about verbs. They tell us when, where, how and why the verb happened. So that means words like “tomorrow”, “there” and “deep” can be adverbs,” she writes.

“I say they can be adverbs because, actually, a word is just a word. It becomes an adverb, or a noun, or an adjective, or a verb when it is doing that job in a sentence.

“Time to take those word lists of adjectives, verbs and nouns off the classroom walls.

“Time, also, to ditch those old Englishmen who wrote a grammar for their times, not ours.

“If you want to understand what our language can do and how to use it well, read widely, think deeply and listen carefully. And remember, neither time nor language stands still – for any of us.”

Looks like we might have been taught wrong after all.

What do you think about this? Have we lost the ability to correctly use grammar?

  1. Yebbut, who teaches the teachers?
    As you listen to the renderers of the spoken word in the “media”, whether on the radio or TV, listen carefully to where emphasis is placed on syllables, where pauses are placed for effect, where spacing (or not) is put for understanding, where words or sentences are run on or separated … how much attention is paid to this in schools?

  2. Sorry but this is American English. Spelling is first and foremost. Colour and not color….confusing….yes but if spelt correctly it is easier to put in speech marks where necessary

  3. Pat Gustafson  

    Have we lost the ability to use correct grammar? It is only an opinion.

  4. Ray  

    I have always been a prescriptivist, however, times are changing since I was at school nearly 55 years ago. I have used ‘And’ and ‘But’ at the beginning of a sentence in academic writing. In doing so it can remove boredom and makes the written work a little colourful.

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