The hit comes sneakily.
Maybe you’re going over a report with a colleague. Maybe your English teacher hands you back your five-paragraph essay on the theme of man versus nature in “The Old Man and the Sea.” Maybe you’re just trying to have a nice, pleasant conversation with a near stranger who asks you how you’re doing.
And then it happens.
“Oops,” your colleague says, voice dripping with satisfaction. “It looks like you started a few sentences with conjunctions. You know that’s not correct, right?”
“DELETE PASSIVE VOICE,” shouts your teacher in red at the top of your essay.
“Oh, you mean you’re ‘well,’ not ‘good,'” the stranger says.
How dare all of them. How does anyone remember all these obnoxious grammar edicts?
Here’s a trick: Ignore them. The three examples we just gave actually are not rules at all.
10: Good for You
“How are you?”
“I’m good,” you reply.
“You’re good? No, you’re not! You’re well!” says the smug friend whom everyone hates.
Before you grumble a halfhearted apology for being an ungrammatical nitwit, stop yourself. Because — get ready for a breakthrough — you are good.
The long-held myth was that you should use an adverb (such as “well”) to describe how you’re doing. But most of us get that “am” is a form of the linking verb “to be” (I am, she is, you are), so we can use an adjective for description. You don’t need to say, for instance, “I’m busily” when you’re trying to finish your crossword in record time and your kid is asking for a snack.
In other words, using an adjective is perfectly acceptable, and “well” is — in fact — used in adjective form when we say “I’m well.” Also not worth hearing? The argument that “good” can only apply to our moral character and that “well” means we’re physically OK. That’s just a matter of usage. We all commonly accept that “good” can mean “well.” You’re good. You’re well. We’re all fine.
9: Funky Conjunction Shun
We all know it’s absolutely horrifying to start a sentence with a conjunction. Who would do such a thing?
Everyone. Shakespeare, for one, liked starting with conjunctions so much that sometimes he used two. (“And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.”) Or the Beatles: Who can argue that the lovelorn “And I love her” lyric and song title are just not right?
And yet, they are perfectly acceptable ways to start sentences. So why do we all think that “so why do we all think that” is an unacceptable starter for a sentence?
Linguist Arnold Zwicky posits an interesting theory. He says that because many freshly minted English speakers (children) tend to use a lot of conjunctions when they speak (“And I went to the playground. And then I skinned my knee. And my mom wouldn’t feed me because she was working on her crossword.”), teachers might have gone a little overboard and declared starting with a conjunction to be verboten in written assignments [source: Zwicky].
Speaking of conjunctions, the word “however” gets its own special place in the pantheon of Generally Accepted Yet Totally Baseless Grammar Rules. The thinking was this: You shouldn’t start a sentence with the word “however” first because it’s a conjunction (see previous page) and second because “however” has a few different meanings, which might muddy the waters of understanding.
To wit: If you say “However long I live, I’ll never forget you,” the meaning of however is either “to whatever extent” or “no matter how” [source: Fogarty]. If you say, “However, I will forget you if I meet someone else,” you obviously are using “however” like a qualifier. (The word “but,” for instance, is pretty interchangeable with “however.”)
Somehow, these two ideas led people to believe that “however” was a messy, inaccurate way to start a sentence. In fact, you’ll be fine if you just follow these easy rules: Add a comma if you’re using it to mean “but” and leave the comma out for an expression of extent.
If you haven’t gotten the idea so far, it’s time we just said it: Grammar changes. Words are fluid and don’t mean the same thing forever, nor are they used the same way throughout eternity. Fittingly, we come to “hopefully,” which became a flash point for some grammar wars a few years ago.
“Hopefully” literally means “in a hopeful manner.” That means that using it in the sense of “it is hoped” is incorrect, as in “Hopefully it will rain soon.” In that instance, you’re really saying, “In a hopeful manner, it will rain.” However, the sentence “We watched the clouds hopefully for rain” is correct.
Or something like that. The point is, there’s a very commonly accepted usage where we mean “it is hoped” when we say “hopefully.” So when the Associated Press decided in 2012 that it would begin accepting “hopefully” in such a manner, anarchy reigned. Or at least some people wrote some angry editorials that are totally worth reading.
Passive voice seems to be the bane of every high school teacher’s existence. You can certainly see why. It can’t be a lot of fun to read paper after paper explaining that “The shot was made by Atticus to kill the dog and save them” or “The book was written by an alcoholic Faulkner.” Surely they’d want to read something more enlivening: “Atticus shot the dog and saved them,” or “Faulkner wrote the stream of consciousness story, but he often lost consciousness while drinking.”
To review: In active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing the action (“I ate the hot dog“). In passive voice, the target of the action is the subject (“The hot dog was eaten by me”). As you can see, passive voice can be a lot clumsier, clunkier or even confusing in many circumstances, but it’s not incorrect. Writers may also employ passive voice when they haven’t done their homework, as in, “The man was shot and killed on Thursday.” By whom? Hmmm, not sure. As with most things, the key to passive voice is moderation. (Someone should’ve told Faulkner.)
And sometimes we must use it. In some professional writing, it’s considered a good way to write objectively. For that reason, you might see studies or scholarly work that uses passive voice to say something like, “The experiments were conducted according to strict standards” as opposed to “We conducted the experiments according to strict standards.”
So watch for passive voice, but don’t buy that you’re a grammar pariah if you use it.
5: Not Really My Style
In the middle of our list, we must address a more universal issue than simply how to use “hopefully” or sentence-starting conjunctions. As we’ve said, English grammar rules are unruly. While we (mostly) agree to follow a (mostly) set list of how to write or speak, we can’t discount the myriad exceptions.
Even more troubling: sometimes the exceptions are even accepted and standardized, becoming … rules. How many times have you fought tooth and nail to prove that correct usage calls for the Oxford (or serial) comma? That’s the one that puts a comma after every item in a list, including the one before “and.”
We hope never. Surely there’s something on TV you could watch instead of picking grammar fights. But it’s not just a waste of time; it also isn’t wrong. The Chicago Manual of Style (which is commonly used in academics and publishing) says serial all the way, but the Associated Press Stylebook (used in journalism or Web copy) says to take that final comma out.
The point is that sometimes we confuse “grammar rules” with the style we prefer. If you want to make a scene with someone about their usage, just make sure you’re not simply imposing your personal favorite on your adversary.
4: I Could Care Less About Grammar
Oh, to be at the grocery store with grammar jerks. Not only are they frowning at every handwritten sign to suss out split infinitives in the weekly sales, but they also refuse to use the express lane.
“Ten items or less,” they sniff. “Incorrect. Should be 10 items or fewer. Let’s get in the other line to protest.”
You’re pretty sure you heard that rule as well, so you hang your head in shame and follow your friend to the next line, behind the guy with 70 coupons and a checkbook.
Centuries ago it started to become accepted that less would be used for items that couldn’t be counted (“I ate less food,” “There should be less contempt for my greed”) and that fewer applied to countable objects (“I ate fewer cakes,” “There should be fewer mean looks from people about the cakes I did eat”). Unfortunately, this has less to do with an actual “rule” and more to do with the preference of an author, one Robert Baker, that became widely disseminated [source: Doyle].
So go ahead and jump lines again to get out of the store as fast as possible. Try to lose the rude friend while you’re at it.
3: It’s the Sound, Not the Letter
If you’re feeling a little shell-shocked about all the grammar rules you thought you knew but don’t really, things are looking up: You probably know half of what you should about when to use “a” versus “an.”
Most of us learned (or at least have the vague memory) that we use the article “a” before a consonant and “an” before a vowel. If you’re a native English speaker, this probably comes naturally to you, so naturally that you are wondering why it’s even on this list.
Again, we harken back to exceptions. Sure, when you walk into a restaurant you’re going to have to wait “an” hour for a table, but you’re going to hear that from “a” hostess. What in the world?
It’s not the vowel itself that makes the difference; it’s the vowel sound. If the word starts with a vowel sound, add an “n” to that “a.” If it’s a consonant sound, it’s an easy “a.”
2: To Infinitives and Between
While “splitting infinitives” sounds like something Superman would do to save Metropolis, our English teachers might’ve had us believe that it was only fit for villains.
The full infinitive is the “true” form of the verb; that is, the verb without conjugation. To go, to eat, to do, to split an infinitive — you get the idea. When we talk about splitting infinitives, we mean we stick an adverb in the middle of the full infinitive.
To bravely ask. To boldly go. To tediously list.
Scandalized, aren’t you? How dare we … put those adverbs there.
Exactly. It doesn’t sound wrong. But in the 19th century, an English grammar book argued that it wasn’t common usage. In addition, you can’t split infinitives in Latin since they’re one word (currere) rather than two (to run), and Latin was still a big deal back then. Accordingly, people went along with the decree forbidding split infinitives [source: Fogarty]. But it didn’t entirely catch on because pesky “common usage” really did win out. We split infinitives, with perfect comprehension, all the time. Now we can choose to keep them together or to split them smugly, knowing we’re on the right side of grammar.
1: Don’t Preposition Me
This is a grammar myth that won’t die. More specifically, it’s a grammar myth that a billion well-meaning know-it-alls won’t let die.
Ending a sentence with a preposition — something like “She’s not someone I would go to the batting cage with” — is perfectly fine. The sentence is clear, and no one would argue its structure. (Although why you wouldn’t go to the batting cage with someone is more of a mystery. What will she do to you?!)
So why do we have this idea that ending a sentence with a preposition makes for an inexpert turn of phrase? It makes sense if you’re Julius Caesar but probably doesn’t apply to you or me. In Latin, ending a sentence with a preposition really was incorrect. In 1762, an Anglican bishop printed a book of grammar and basically co-opted the Latin rule for English. A good try, but English-speaking peoples had been ending sentences with prepositions for ages, and the practice persisted [source: O’Connor and Kellarman].
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