The Internet loves a good argument.
See: the 380+ comments on my piece on the Oxford comma debate, which devolved into everything from political jabs to commentary on the fairness of overtime laws.
Despite all better judgment, I sometimes take a look through the most recent comments because Internet reactions amuse me. Amid the many readers continuing to rail against my adoption of AP style on a blog I specifically say uses AP style, I found one observation in particular that made me pause.
To those of you who pointed out my use of a dangling modifier, I confess: You caught me.
I also confess: I don’t feel terribly bad about it.
A few readers rightly picked up on the grammar faux pas in the sentence, “As a diehard Oxford comma loyalist, this ruling made my day.” Read literally, the construction of this sentence infers the court ruling under discussion is a diehard Oxford comma loyalist, not me.
A grammar purist will understandably be nettled by this. But I don’t feel as embarrassed as perhaps I should, because I highly doubt anyone besides a grammar purist would be confused into thinking I was anthropomorphizing a court ruling.
Which lead me me down the rabbit hole of a whole ’nother debate: When does a grammar rule pass into obsolescence? At what point is non-standard sentence construction widely accepted as standard? Can we as writers loosen up on certain rules when general usage renders an “incorrect” syntax perfectly understandable to the average reader?
Hold onto your outrage, Internet. Here are six grammar rules that may be going out of style.
1. Never end a sentence with a preposition
Attempting to follow this rule can result in some painfully stilted sentences, like this gem attributed to Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.” (Sadly, this attribution is only anecdotal, but it’s still a gem.)
This rule stems from Latin, English’s ancient ancestor, in which sentence-ending prepositions simply can’t be done.
In modern English usage, however, there’s no reason to cling to this rule — unless you want your writing to sound more formal (or your characters to come across as pompous know-it-alls).
2. Never start a sentence with a conjunction
And why not? There’s no real basis for this rule except teacherly bias and a misplaced fear of sentence fragments.
According to David Crystal in The Story of English in 100 Words, teachers in the 19th century were annoyed with their students’ overuse of conjunctions as sentences starters. Rather than working to correct this tendency, they created a hard-and-fast rule against it — no doubt making their lives easier, but causing quite a headache for writers for centuries to come.
The truth is, there are different types of conjunctions. Subordinating conjunctions (like if, because and when) join a dependent clause with a standalone one. Break apart “If you build it, they will come,” and you have an independent clause that could be its own sentence (“They will come.”) and a fragment that doesn’t make sense by itself (“If you build it…”).
Coordinating conjunctions (like and, but and or) join two independent clauses together: “I was looking forward to the beach, but it rained all day.” Separate the clauses in these cases, and you still have standalone sentences, each with a noun and a verb: “I was looking forward to the beach. But it rained all day.”
While you don’t want all your sentences to be this abrupt, it’s OK to pepper some in for flavor.
3. Don’t use sentence fragments
Beginning a sentence with a conjunction will result in some sentence fragments.
As with any other “rule” on this list, this is a no-no for formal writing (i.e., articles in traditional publications, cover letters) but allowable for informal (i.e., blog posts, fiction).
One goal of informal writing is to sound more conversational, and like it or not, we use plenty of sentence fragments in everyday conversation.
4. Never split infinitives
This one’s another holdover from Latin sentence construction. In Latin, an infinitive is a single word; it literally cannot be split. But English’s two-word infinitives can, so why shouldn’t they be?
Opponents argue the split infinitive is inelegant.
An infinitive is a two-word unit that expresses one thought, they hold, and splitting it up makes a sentence less readable. But there are plenty of times when avoiding a split infinitive can lead to linguistic contortions that make a sentence clumsy or ambiguous. It can also change the impact. “To boldly go where no man has gone before” just doesn’t have the same ring as, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.”
Whether or not you split an infinitive is largely a matter of preference; it if makes a sentence smoother or more powerful, go for it.
Use as needed — without feeling bad about it.
5. Never use “who” when you should use “whom”
As Megan Garber argues in an Atlantic article titled “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” grammar rules are intended to clarify language to avoid confusion. And in many cases, “whom simply costs language users more than it benefits them.”
“Whom” is a word that’s been falling out of practice for some time now. As a result, the majority of people don’t know how to use it, resulting in plenty of second-guessing, incorrect usage and less-than-smooth sentences. (Admit it, “Whom You Gonna Call?” hardly makes for a catchy song lyric.)
If you find yourself wrestling over “who” vs. “whom” in a sentence, your best bet is to rephrase the sentence to avoid the issue altogether. A reader may trip over, “With whom did you meet?”; a simple rewrite to, “Which person met with you?” solves the problem.
6. “They” is not a pronoun
Yes, using “he” as a default pronoun sounds sexist. But flipping between “he” and “she” in the same piece can be awkward, and using “he/she” brings the flow of a sentence to a grinding halt. Unless you want to use “it” as a gender-neutral pronoun — which seems insensitive, if not psychotic — that leaves you with “they.”
I get why this makes grammarians cringe. “They” is a plural noun, and we’ve twisted it into a faux singular noun in an attempt to be PC. It’s an imperfect solution, but until a widely recognized alternative comes along, we seem to be stuck.
What’s a writer to do?
Grammar, like language itself, is a constantly evolving creature.
Practices frowned upon in the past make their way into general acceptance as they become widely recognized. Contractions were once considered uncouth, but no one questions them now.
Just like spoken language, written language has dialects, and the adept user knows how to switch between them. An academic paper calls for a vastly different style than an article in a fashion mag.
The best rule of thumb when it comes to deciding whether to follow a seemingly antiquated grammar rule is to know your medium and audience. Know the rules so you can make an informed decision to ignore them for stylistic reasons.
That’s what being a pro is all about.