There’s no evidence that he actually said the following. But Winston Churchill is often credited with this response to criticism that he ended sentences with a preposition. “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I shall not put.”
Though the story is apocryphal, the point is well taken. When it comes to grammar, many rules aren’t really rules at all. And many others can and should be broken.
A new book called The Joy of Syntax by June Casagrande cautions writers to beware of language myths. Here’s a useful guideline. “If someone tells you that it’s wrong to X, where X is something native English speakers do regularly, you can be pretty sure the rule is bogus,” she says.
Casagrande says that words, phrases and clauses need to work together, like gears, to form sentences. If those gears keep the machine running – if the sentence mechanics make sense – certain “rules” can be ignored. Like starting sentences, as I have already done, with “and” and “but”. Or using “like” instead of “such as” in the last sentence. Or using the singular “they”.
Linguist Stephen Pinker wrote about this for The Guardian. He says there are more serious errors that have little to do with the rules, for instance using a formal style where an informal one is more appropriate, or vice versa. “Many prescriptive guides are oblivious to this distinction, and mistake informal style for incorrect grammar,” he notes.
When can we throw a grammar rule out the window? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, suggests Pinker:
- Is the rule based on a crackpot theory (English should emulate Latin, or the original meaning of a word is the only correct one)?
- Did it start with “the pet peeve of a self-anointed maven”?
- Do great writers routinely flout it?
- Is it based on a misdiagnosis of a legitimate problem, e.g. declaring that a construction that’s sometimes ambiguous is always ungrammatical?
- Do attempts to fix a sentence so it obeys the rule make it clumsier or less clear?
When in doubt, Pinker and Casagrande give the same advice: consult a dictionary. Besides the definitions and spellings, you’ll find guidance on usage, much of which will, Pinker says, debunk grammatical nonsense.
E.B. White, the author of children’s books (Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little) and style guide editor (The Elements of Style, also known as Strunk & White), once reminded writers what counts. Think of the feel, as well as the technical skills. “Writing is an act of faith,” White offered, “not a trick of grammar.”