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A Word, Please: Superstitious ‘nonrules’ may come to an end with new book

They say that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on.

The source of this pithy saying is a perfect example: It’s usually attributed to Mark Twain, though the New York Times reports it was most likely Jonathan Swift.

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But we need an equally pithy saying for what happens next: The lie colonizes the world and decrees that under no circumstances should the truth be granted a visa for entry.

That’s how grammar myths work — especially the grammar myths that were all the rage in the 1950s and 1960s.

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These misguided “rules” traveled around the world at lightning speed, carried on the tongues of folks who love to say, “You can’t split and infinitive” and “You can’t start a sentence with ‘and.’” And despite the efforts of many language experts determined to set the record straight, the lies linger.

In his best-selling new book, “Dreyer’s English,” Penguin Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer delivers these “nonrules” the bludgeoning they deserve.

Could his be the final death blow to these superstitions? We can only hope. Here are Dreyer’s “nonrules” and why you can, with his blessing, ignore them entirely.

“Never begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’ ” The “and” thing is almost forgivable. Almost. A rational person could surmise that “and” is designed to connect stuff within a sentence and that, therefore, it has no place at the head of one. But, in fact, “and” can connect the stuff in one sentence with the stuff in another.

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Yes, we editors delete a lot of unnecessary words, and “and” at the head of a sentence is usually unnecessary. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. “Do begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ if it strikes your fancy to do so,” Dreyer advises. “Great writers do it all the time.”

“Never split an infinitive.” If you’ve heard this fake rule, you no doubt got the “Star Trek” example: “To boldly go where no man has gone before” is wrong, pedants say, because you can’t put anything between the infinitive particle “to” and the base verb “go.”

Some experts believe this idea comes from folks misapplying rules of Latin, a language in which infinitives have no particle. They’re just whole words, like “ire,” which means “to go.” Good luck cramming “boldly” in there.

Origins aside, this “rule” just isn’t true. It’s also bad for your writing, as Dreyer illustrates with the unsplit alternatives “Boldly to go where no man has gone before” and “To go boldly where no man has gone before.”

“If either of those sounds better to you, be my guest,” Dreyer writes. “To me, they sound as if they were translated from Vulcan.”

“Never end a sentence with a preposition.” Time to expose another lie that made it halfway around the world, then traversed the other half, planting its flag at every stop along the way: The famous Winston Churchill quote, “This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put,” apparently wasn’t really Churchill’s.

But it’s still useful for making the point that a preposition like “with,” “up,” “at,” “to,” “for” and many more sometimes can’t be moved from the end of a sentence to someplace in the middle. “To tie a sentence into a strangling knot to avoid a prepositional conclusion is unhelpful and unnatural,” Dreyer notes.

And these are just Dreyer’s “big three” nonrules. There are seven “lesser” nonrules to note, too: 1. Contractions aren’t allowed in formal writing. 2. The passive voice is to be avoided. 3. Sentence fragments. They’re bad. 4. A person must be a “who.” 5. “None” is singular and, dammit, only singular. 6. “Whether” must never be accompanied by “or not.” 7. Never introduce a list with “like.”

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As Dreyer shows, none of these rules are real. And all of them can be dispensed with.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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