A Word, Please: Hunting down the incorrect ‘zombie rules’ of grammar

Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Abigail Breslin and Emma Stone in "Zombieland."
Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone) in a scene from Zombieland. Columnist June Casagrande shares some of the “zombie rules” listed in a grammar book called “Bad Advice.”
(Jessica Miglio / Columbia Pictures)

Don’t split an infinitive. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t begin a sentence with “and.” Don’t use passive voice.

If these rigid proscriptions have been rattling around your head since your school days, veteran Baltimore Sun copy editor and Loyola University Maryland editing instructor John McIntyre would like a word. Well, two words, actually: “Bad Advice.”

That’s the title of McIntyre’s new book, whose subtitle tells you everything else you need to know about what’s inside: “The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing.”

It’s a tiny tome. Just 51 pages. But it contains pretty much everything you ever wanted to un-know about grammar but didn’t know you needed to un-know it.

McIntyre explains: “Many of the things you are getting wrong in writing are not your fault: you have been badly advised. You have been taught superstitions about English that have no foundation in the language. You have been hobbled with oversimplifications. You have been subjected to bizarre diktats from supposed authorities.”

From there, McIntyre handily obliterates practically every piece of bad advice you ever got, starting with “one of the oldest zombie rules”: Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Lots of people were taught this in school. The idea is that it’s wrong to write “Who’s the man I saw you with?” because “with” is a preposition. Instead, the promulgators of this myth say, you should twist every sentence to put the preposition somewhere else. In this case, that would give you “Who’s the man with whom I saw you?”

McIntyre isn’t having it. “Stranded prepositions” (another term for sentence-ending prepositions) “are perfectly normal in English, and you need not strain to avoid them.”

Perhaps you’ve heard it’s also wrong to “split an infinitive”? That’s the supposed rule that you can’t put an adverb or another word between the infinitive particle “to” and a verb, as was so famously done in the original “Star Trek” line “to boldly go.”

But there’s no such rule. And to underscore the point, McIntyre cites a letter author Raymond Chandler wrote to the editors of the Atlantic Monthly, who apparently had taken the liberty of recasting a sentence in an article Chandler had written: “When I split an infinitive, (expletive deleted), I split it so it will stay split.”

A few of McIntyre’s topics are especially near and dear to my heart, like the myth that you shouldn’t use “like” to mean “such as.” “The thinking behind the distinction is that ‘like’ indicates resemblances while ‘such as’ indicates examples.”

This myth haunts my editing work as writers constantly make sentences unnecessarily wordy to comply with this nonexistent rule, subjecting me to torments like: “Activities such as golfing and kayaking and amenities such as spa services and free breakfast items such as muffins are included.”

To debunk this one, McIntyre sends readers straight to the source. “To simplify your life, turn to the ‘like’ entry in Merriam-Webster, where one of the senses listed is a conjunction meaning ‘such as,’ as indeed it has for lo, these many years.”

Other zombie rules in “Bad Advice” were new to me. “From at least the 1950s, certain usage commentators frowned on ‘convince to.’ They said that one ‘persuades’ a person ‘to’ do something but ‘convinces’ a person ‘of’ something,” McIntyre writes. “ The two words, in the sense of ‘bring someone to a belief, a consent, or a course of action,’ are functionally interchangeable.”

The hits keep coming. Don’t use “hopefully” as a sentence adverb. “Only” must always be placed next to the particular word that it modifies. Use a comma when you would pause in speaking. Do not write sentence fragments. Type two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. Don’t use passive voice.

These myths, and many more, get the flogging they deserve in this little book. Here’s hoping McIntyre’s excellent advice helps hasten their demise.

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