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Archive for the ‘writing myths’ Category

In most sentences, getting the subject and verb to agree is easy. However, three tricky types of sentences can turn this simple task into a complicated feat that requires three grammar handbooks and a call to your old English teacher.

1. Subjects connected by or

Subjects connected by and are easy: they take plural verbs.

The dean and faculty members are creating the new hiring guidelines.

However, in sentences with subjects connected by or (and in either/or, neither/nor sentences), the order of the sentence dictates the verb, with the verb matching the subject closest to it.

Neither the dean nor the faculty members are creating the new hiring guidelines.

Neither the faculty members nor the dean is creating the new hiring guidelines.

2. Sentences with words between the subject and verb

The goal of our Healthy Workplace Now and after-hours exercise programs is to reduce employee absenteeism.

It may sound strange to hear the words programs and is next to each other, but the above sentence is correct. The subject of the sentence is goal: The goal is to reduce employee absenteeism. It doesn’t matter how many words are between the subject and verb or whether those words are singular or plural.

3. Sentences with indefinite subjects

The following pronouns take singular verbs, even if they imply a sense of being plural:

  • anyone
  • anybody
  • either
  • everyone
  • everybody
  • everything
  • no one
  • someone
  • something

Everybody who applied for promotions is required to attend Monday’s meeting.

No one from the Kentucky or Tennessee offices is invited to the meeting.

If each stands alone as a subject, it takes a singular verb. If it isn’t standing alone, the verb choice will vary depending on whether the expression means “each one” or “both.”

Each of the committees has submitted a final report. (stands alone, so it’s singular)

Each manager and assistant manager is required to attend next month’s sensitivity training. (means each one, so it’s singular)

The manager and assistant manager each are required to attend next month’s sensitivity training. (means both, so it’s plural)

Other indefinite pronouns are more complicated. For example, some grammar handbooks still claim that the word none means “not one” and should always be singular. However, that interpretation has been disputed for centuries, with many distinguished grammarians pointing out that the meaning is closer to “not any.” Some sources that concur on the idea of none being plural in many uses:

  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage (dating back to the 1926 version)
  • The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage
  • Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage
  • The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style

The misconception about none is similar to the classroom grammar myths outlined in a previous post except that it actually appears in some grammar handbooks, so I will call it a mythinterpretation.

Patricia O’Conner, author of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, calls the issue “none sense” and gives the clearest explanation:

If it suggests “none of them,” it’s plural: None of the fans are fighting. None are excited enough.

If it suggests “none of it,” it’s singular: None of the bout was seen in Pittsburgh. None was worth broadcasting.

Note: When you really do mean “not one,” it’s better to say “not one” and use a singular verb: Not one of Holyfield’s fingers was broken.

I hope these last three blog posts have helped your sentences to be more agreeable.

Next time: Don’t talk to me! (Correct use of you)

References

Burchfield, R.W., ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford, 1996. Print.

Butler, et al. Correct Writing. 6th ed. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1995. Print.

Garner, Bryan A. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York: Oxford, 2000. Print.

Hacker, Diana. The Bedford Handbook for Writers. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford, 1994. Print.

Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2010. Print.

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 2002.

O’Conner, Patricia T. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York: Putnam, 1996. Print.

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My recent post, “Lies Your English Teacher Told You,” received an overwhelming response, triggering more than 54,000 hits and hundreds of comments.

As I expected, the idea of not ending a sentence with a preposition generated the most passionate responses, so let me review some key topics:

1. My credentials

Although most readers were supportive, a few questioned my ability to proclaim that writers can end sentences with prepositions. I don’t expect you to trust an unknown blogger. Here are reputable sources that agree with my view:

Oxford Dictionaries

Merriam Webster Online

“Contrary to popular belief, it is not a mortal sin to end a sentence with a preposition, as long as the sentence sounds natural and its meaning is clear. . . . It is absolutely antiquated to forbid ending a sentence with a preposition.”

— The Grammar Bible (2004)

The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English. It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it is a mistake.”

— Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (2002)

“A preposition at the end of a sentence can be a sign that the sentence is awkwardly constructed. The branch office is where she was at. However, if a preposition falls naturally at the end of a sentence, leave it there. (‘I don’t remember which file I saved it under.’)”

— Handbook of Technical Writing, Ninth Edition (2009)

Many famous writers have ended sentences with prepositions. Just look at Hamlet’s soliloquy by William Shakespeare, who ends each stanza with a preposition:

By a sleep to say we end

The heartaches and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to.

Who would these fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death–

The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns– puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

2. Grammar vs. style

Although there is no grammar rule about sentence-ending prepositions, some readers aptly pointed out that in some cases they are a matter of style. As mentioned in the earlier handbook example, a sentence that is awkward or unclear with the preposition at the end should be recast.

3. Breaking the rules

Some people mistakenly interpreted the blog post as permission to break writing rules. No! I was clarifying that certain so-called rules are actually myths. Most writing rules are in place to enhance communication, so I don’t advocate abandoning them in workplace writing. Creative writing is another matter.

4. The audience

Even if you feel comfortable ending sentences with prepositions, keep in mind audience preferences. Some of my readers said they are annoyed by such sentences, even if there is no rule about then.  Certainly if you are writing a paper for an instructor or boss who hates sentence-ending prepositions, avoid using them!

5. Evolving language

One Canadian reader pointed out that English seems to evolve faster in the United States. He said that the Canadian journalism stylebook still forbids prepositions at the ends of sentences. I checked the two leading American journalism stylebooks; neither mentions the rule.

6. Practicality

Some readers pointed out that it would be impractical to avoid prepositions at the ends of sentences in certain circumstances, including questions

Where are you from?

and sentences where the preposition is part of a noun or verb:

After hearing the obscene caller on the other end of the phone, I hung up.

6. Lies

A few readers questioned my choice of the word lies in the title. I didn’t mean to suggest a conspiracy by English teachers to deceive students; I think in most cases the propagation of the rules is an honest mistake. In other cases, the teachers are probably trying to get students to avoid lazy habits like starting too many sentences with and. But in the end, I have to question why the teachers didn’t notice the absence of the rules in their textbooks (and the presence of violations of the rules in works by established writers) and yet still pounded the rules into students’ minds so effectively that many years later in my college classroom, the myths are among the few rules students remember consistently.

In school, I had teachers who would forbid students from starting sentences with but or using to be verbs. Such exercises strengthened my writing. However, my teachers always made it clear that the restrictions weren’t permanent rules, merely parts of practice exercises. I’m encouraging today’s teachers to do the same. (Trust me — I know they’re already doing a difficult job for low pay, and I wouldn’t trade places with them!)

7. Examples

A few readers wanted a clearer explanation of split infinitives. An infinitive is to plus a verb:

to walk

to run

to go

I embedded my examples in the lesson itself:

to boldly to

to gently split

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As a college English instructor, I continually have to remove writing myths from my students’ brains. These rules don’t appear in any grammar book, but they are taught year after year.

You can’t end a sentence with a preposition.

Yes, you can. The world won’t stop revolving, and your old English teacher can’t argue because there is no such rule. The problem started in England back in 1672 when John Dryden wrote a piece criticizing Ben Jonson for ending a sentence with a preposition. Dryden believed that since the construction wasn’t possible in Latin, it shouldn’t be possible in English.

Clearly, this logic doesn’t make sense: English is its own language. But some people agreed with Dryden and spread the rule around. The issue became a subject of debate. Robert Lowth, a respected academic, wrote in the 1760s that ending a sentence with a preposition was acceptable in “familiar” or everyday writing but that avoiding the construction was “more graceful” for “the solemn and elevated style.”

So there’s no rule against it. One note: Make sure you need the preposition.

NOT: Where’s the new copier at?

INSTEAD: Where’s the new copier?

If you encounter fierce resistance from overzealous followers of the nonexistent but persistent rule, you can recast the sentence, but the result is usually awkward. I saw a funny example of recasting on a greeting card (one that unfortunately used an unnecessary preposition):

GIRL #1: Where’s your birthday party at?

GIRL #2: Never end a sentence with a preposition.

GIRL #1: Where’s your birthday party at, bitch?

You can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but.”

Did your ninth-grade English teacher warn you about starting a sentence with a conjunction? If so, the reason was not that the construction was grammatically incorrect; he or she was just trying to get you to elevate your writing before you hit college. Beginning too many sentences with and or but leads to weak, bland writing. But using such conjunctions sparingly in a document is perfectly legal (unless your ninth-grade teacher is going to read it). If you find yourself using these simple transitions too often, try eliminating each one to see if it was needed in the first place. If some form of transition is needed, try these similar forms:

And: in addition, moreover, furthermore, also

But:  however, in contrast

You can’t start a sentence with because.

This imaginary rule was probably developed by teachers trying to prevent their students from creating sentence fragments. If you write a clause starting with because, it’s easy to mistakenly think you have a sentence:

Because it took all afternoon to write the new proposal.

That fragment looks like a complete sentence because it has a subject and verb; however, it doesn’t express a complete thought. But why is because the only forbidden word? Why not although, when, while, after, if, and a whole host of other words that serve the same purpose? In fact, starting a sentence with because adds sentence variety, a valuable writing technique.

You can’t split an infinitive.

The alleged ban against splitting an infinitive — the word to plus a verb — is another Latin-based idea. In older forms of English, largely rooted in Latin, the infinitive was one word and therefore couldn’t be split. Once the language evolved to include two-word infinitives, writers began splitting, but some grammarians decided that the practice shouldn’t be allowed.

You’ll probably find the rule if you dig up a really old grammar book, but modern ones don’t mention it. If you want to gently split an infinitive, go for it! Your mission is to boldly go where good writers have gone before.

Next time: Everyone agrees that agreement is difficult

REFERENCES

Huddleston, Rodney, and Geoffrey K. Pullum.  The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution Of ‘Proper’ English, From Shakespeare To ‘South Park.’ New York: Walker & Co., 2009.

“A Brief History of English Usage” from Merriam-Webster Inc.

http://ling.kgw.tu-berlin.de/lexicography/data/B_HIST_EU.html

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