The idea that our language is going to the dogs is a pedant’s meme that goes back at least as far as Seneca.
Perhaps you had a teacher (or a boss or an editor) with a prescriptivist bent, someone who holds certain principles of language use to be immutable laws, such as ‘Never start a sentence with And or But’ or ‘Always use a comma after “which”’.
We all have a few of these peeves rattling around our heads, but it is the mark of the true prescriptivist to turn them into in an ideology.
Society’s inevitable failure to adhere to such ‘rules’ with total compliance is taken by the prescriptivist as evidence of declining standards, a society that is traducing the language of Shakespeare in its race to the bottom (See The Daily Mail for more of this sort of thing; for more background to the conflict, see Proper English by Ronald Wardaugh, or The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings).
Peeves are not rules
Unfortunately, the gulf between those who preach about language in this top-down way and those who actually dedicate their lives to understanding how language works continues to yawn.
Prescriptivists carry around with them a ragbag of unexamined diktats which are social rather than linguistic in force: not ‘knowing’ that it’s poor form to verb a noun or split an infinitive, for instance, is taken as evidence of a second-class mind or of someone who attended the wrong school.
But these are not rules, so much as superstitions or shibboleths.
A lot of the problem, argues linguist Steven Pinker in his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, is a misunderstanding about what we mean by a ‘rule’ here.
The rules which describe language use are not bestowed from on high by some unimpeachable source such as the OED, but are rather ‘tacit conventions’ or principles of use agreed by a community of language users.
These rules can change as our needs change, but this is not to say that absolutely anything goes.
Anyone writing or commenting on this blog, for instance, is tacitly observing all sorts of more specialised ‘rules’ that make it easier for others to process their words – conventions of punctuation, for instance, or agreed meanings of specialised terms.
Rules that don’t work
But while it’s useful to know what the current standards are, and to follow guidelines that help make our writing clearer and more graceful, that doesn’t mean that we have to obey every half-baked maxim that comes our way just because someone feels strongly about it (especially if they haven’t ever really stopped to think about what they’re saying).
Many of the ‘rules’ the purists cling to simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. Often, the rule has been ignored by the most respected writers in the language for centuries, for instance.
Or the rule is based on a principle of grammar that makes sense in describing a different language (notoriously, Latin).
Sometimes the purists break the rule in their own writing. And sometimes, the rule is just demonstrably false: words denounced as barbaric neologisms turn out to have been in use for centuries, for instance.
Here then are nine such rules you can safely ignore, together with some ammunition to counter your inner pedant…
1. Don’t use ‘they’ to mean ‘he or she’
Clients still occasionally tell us off when we use ‘they/their’ to mean ‘he or she/his or her’ or when referring back to words such as ‘everyone’, ‘anyone’ or ‘someone’, as in this example from The Economist Style Guide: ‘We can’t afford to squander anyone’s talents, whatever colour their skin is.’ ‘Confusion of subject and verb!’ they cry.
Not so. ‘Singular they’ as it’s called (though ‘singular’ is misleading here) has been sanctioned by centuries of usage as a neat way of dealing with instances where the gender or number of the person/people isn’t known or doesn’t need to be specified.
It’s long been accepted by such respected authorities as The Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Usage, and is used enthusiastically by Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Mark Twain.
It’s also particularly useful in a variety of online contexts such as social media profiles. On Facebook you now have the option of choosing something other than male or female for the gender bit of your profile.
If you choose this, your friends will see messages like, ‘Wish them a happy birthday.’
2. Always use a comma before which
This rule, and other variants, relates to theories about when to use ‘that’ or ‘which’ with certain types of clause. The so-called ‘rule’ is that ‘which’ is used for non-restrictive clauses and ‘that’ with restrictive clauses.
What’s the difference? A restrictive clause helps define the meaning of the subject and cannot be omitted, while the non-restrictive clause just adds supplementary information and could be left out without impacting on the sentence’s meaning:
Restrictive: ‘The course that I want to go on next week costs £500.’
Non-restrictive: ‘The course, which I want to go on next week, costs £500.’
The rule is half sound. While it would be odd to say, ‘The course, that I want to go on next week, costs £500,’ there’s really no reason why we couldn’t say, ‘The course which I want to go on next week costs £500.’
Even when ‘which’ isn’t mandatory, great writers have been using it for centuries, as in the King James Bible’s ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s’.
3. Never verb a noun
Peevers love to peeve about nouns becoming verbs – ‘friending’, ‘sunsetting’, ‘evidencing’, ‘greenlighting’ and all the rest.
But as Steven Pinker pointed out in The Language Instinct, verbing has been ‘part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English.’
In Richard II Shakespeare writes, ‘Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle.’ The bard was also the first to use ‘dog’ as a verb. Other common hates such as ‘impacting’ and ‘tasking’ turn out to be hundreds of years old (17th and 16th century respectively).
According to The Economist’s Johnson blog: ‘Verbing happens. You can be an early adopter or (like The Economist) more conservative, but it’s going to happen regardless.’
4. Use ‘less’ with things you can’t count, ‘fewer’ with things you can
‘This rule is simple and easy enough to follow,’ comments Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage. ‘It has only one fault – it is not accurate for all usage.’
As so often, the rule over-simplifies the reality. While we would want all want to say ‘less gravel’ rather than ‘fewer gravel’, try substituting ‘fewer’ for ‘less’ in the Bacharach and David song, One Less Bell to Answer: ‘One fewer bell to answer, one fewer egg to fry. One fewer man to pick up after… I should be happy but all I do is cry.’
Ditto, ‘That’s one fewer thing on my to-do list’, ‘Answer the question in 20 words or fewer’, ‘I weighed fewer than five pounds when I was born’. As Pinker notes, ‘”Less” is perfectly natural with a singular count noun, as in “one less car” and “one less thing to worry about”.’
In fact, Marriam-Webster notes that ‘less’ has been used with count nouns since the time of King Alfred – that is, ‘for just about as long as there has been a written English language.’ It advises writers to ‘be guided by your ear’ rather than stick to a rigid rule.
5. Don’t split your infinitives
‘You can split infinitives,’ say the Plain English Campaign. ‘So you can say “to boldly go”.’ Indeed, these days you will struggle to find any style guide or self-appointed language maven that is prepared to argue for this rule, which originates in a confusion of Latin and English grammar.
The split infinitive has been ignored by our most celebrated writers for ever, and insisting on using it now not only often sounds affected but can actually alter or obscure meaning.
Compare ‘I want to really interrogate this client brief’ with ‘I want really to interrogate this client brief.’ Or compare ‘The goal is to at least double conversions this quarter’ with ‘The goal is at least to double conversions this quarter.’
6. Always write in complete sentences
If we were to tell off all the writers who have ever broken this rule, there’d be no end of it: this post cites examples of sentence fragments from JM Coetzee, Dickens and HL Mencken, highly respected writers all.
Then there’s all that advertising copy. And the Bible, of course, which ends: ‘Amen.’
The idea stems from a confusion of the concepts of sentence completeness and textual coherence. Meaning in writing is conveyed across and between all the sentences and paragraphs of a whole text, so individual sentences don’t have to map slavishly to complete thoughts.
There are lots of good reasons to opt sometimes for an ‘incomplete’ sentence (one that doesn’t have the standard subject-verb-object pattern, say) – style, rhetoric, economy and clarity among them (there are two such incomplete sentences in the previous para, by the way).
‘There is a widespread belief that […] complete SENTENCES are signs of “complete”, well-ordered THOUGHTS (and that incomplete, fragmentary sentences are signs of incomplete, disordered thoughts),’ wrote linguist Arnold Zwicky on Language Log.
‘The underpinning belief is that the superficial syntactic form of sentences is a direct reflection of the structure of the thoughts these sentences convey. This is a very silly idea.’
7. Don’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’
This ‘rule’ – frequently taught in primary school – is really a sub-rule of the one above.
‘There is nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with a conjunction,’ says Pinker. ‘”And”, “but” and “so” are indispensable in linking individual sentences into a coherent passage, and they may be used to begin a sentence whenever the clauses being connected are too long or complicated to fit comfortably into a single mega sentence.’
8. Never end a sentence on a preposition
‘You can end a sentence with a preposition,’ say the Plain English Campaign. ‘In fact, it is something we should stand up for.’
The story that Churchill once said something like, ‘This is pedantry up with which I will not put’ is almost certainly a myth. But what lies behind this supposed bon mot is a purist ban on what are called clause-final prepositions.
It doesn’t take long to see the problems with such a ‘rule’. Can you imagine De Niro snarling: ‘At whom are you looking?’ or this ‘improvement’ on Shakespeare: ‘We are such stuff as on which dreams are made.’
Sometimes it makes sense – or just sounds better – to move the preposition away from the end but, as always, a crass rule is no substitute for thinking carefully about what you’re trying to say and finding the best way to say it.
9. Never use the passive voice
I think I’ve probably banged on enough about this one already. Don’t agree? Try looking it up first.
Final word to Steve Pinker:
The easiest way to distinguish a legitimate rule of usage from a grandmother’s tale is unbelievably simple: look it up. Consult a modern usage guide or a dictionary with usage notes.
Many people, particularly sticklers, are under the impression that every usage myth ever loosed on the world by a self-proclaimed purist will be backed up by the major dictionaries and manuals.
In fact, these reference works, with their careful attention to history, literature and actual usage, are the most adamant debunkers of grammatical nonsense.