Grammar can be a surprisingly controversial topic. I’ve seen people get into some pretty heated arguments over such vital issues as when to use “dreamed” and when to use “dreamt” and whether the past tense of “dive” is “dived” or “dove.” Even in this age of celebrating diversity, most people just aren’t comfortable with linguistic differences.
For writers, it’s complicated by the fact that we are trying to sound both correct and colloquial, educated but easy-to-read. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’m a linguist by profession (at least, by one of my professions), and so on this Writing Tips Thursday, I’m offering a few tips about grammar rules. Specifically, rules you can more-or-less ignore.
The who/whom conundrum.
Every year, my students struggle more and more with when to use “whom.” These days, they almost always get it wrong. This isn’t because they are getting dumber—they’re not—but because “whom” is falling out of the English language. In fact, it’s barely hanging on by its fingernails. Soon its dictionary entry will be accompanied by the word “archaic.”
Except in very formal writing—a scholarly article, a presidential speech—I advocate using who, for two reasons. First, whom tends to make a writer sound like a stuffed shirt. Every time I hear someone use it, I expect them to be wearing a monacle.
But mostly, whom makes for stilted writing. Frankly, “Who did you give the ticket to?” is just clearer, simpler, and less pretentious than “To whom did give the ticket?”
Fragments are always bad. Including this one.
Every writer should know how to recognize and create a complete, well-formed sentence, and fragments should be studiously avoided in any kind of formal prose. When I teach academic writing, I take off points for fragments.
Yet, the lowly fragment can come in handy in casual or creative writing. Used wisely, it can add clarity and simplicity to your prose. It cuts down on verbiage and gets to the point.
The key is to learn to identify fragments, then only use them when you have a reason. In other words, know the rule and know when to break it.
Remember to never split infinitives
Most of the writers I know are aware in some vague way that split infinitives are a grammatical no-no, but most are unaware of what a split infinitive actually is.
The infinitive is the simple form of a verb + to, as in
- To be or not to be.
- To err is human; to forgive divine.
- I’d like to write a best seller.
Splitting an infinitive means putting a word—usually an adverb—in between the “to” and the verb, as in:
- I want to quickly run into the store for a minute.
- Remember to thoroughly rinse the tomatoes before you eat them.
And perhaps the world’s most famous split infinitive:
- To boldly go where no one has gone before.
In an earlier post, I wrote about grammar rules that were made up, written into textbooks, and then enshrined by our educational system. The split infinitive is one. Someone in the 18th century decided we shouldn’t split infinitives because Latin doesn’t do it. English teachers got hold of the idea and the rest is history. Of course, they were all ignoring a basic fact of life: English is not Latin. It is English.
Never place a preposition at the end of a sentence.
This means you should say “To which store are you going?” rather than the much more natural, “Which store are you going to?”
It’s another made-up rule (yep, also ridiculously based on Latin), and, like most invented grammar, it creates awkward sentences, and sounds snobby. Totally ignorable.
Hopefully, these tips have helped you relax a little when you’re trying to sort out the complexities of English grammar. Whoops! That sentence broke another favorite rule of language purists. Can anyone identify it?
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