A Word, Please: Some great grammatical myths revealed

Recently in this space, I touched on two widespread grammar myths that just won't die: the so-called split infinitive and the dreaded sentence-ending preposition (Re. "Yes, there are superstitions in grammar," June 16). An astounding number of people think these are grammar no-nos, even though they never were.

For example, here is what radio personality and author Patricia T. O'Conner started dealing with after her book "Woe Is I" came out in 1996.

"People started sending me their questions, observations and grievances about language," she reports in her newest book, "Origins of the Specious." "To my surprise, every other message seemed to involve a myth, misunderstanding, or mystery about English. … Would-be sticklers scolded me whenever I split an infinitive on the air or (gasp!) ended a sentence with a preposition. Yet all those are misconceptions, even that business about what not to end a sentence with."

For decades now, experts have been trying to dispel some of the most popular grammar myths. And, for decades now, they've failed. The two already mentioned are the biggies, but there are others that, in the interest of spreading good information after bad, we will look at here.

From time to time I get emails scolding me for starting a sentence with "and." Sometimes I also get chewed out for beginning them with "but," "so" and "because." Yet there isn't a credible source under the sun that considers these wrong.

"Everybody agrees that it's all right to begin a sentence with 'and,' and nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some past time that the practice was wrong," according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.

This reference guide even suggests a theory as to how this misperception spread. It probably started out as a way "to correct the tendency of children to string together independent clauses or simple declarative sentences with 'ands': 'We got in the car and we went to the movies and I bought some popcorn and … '"

As a copy editor, I've noticed that "and" at the beginning of a sentence is sometimes a bad choice. It's often unnecessary and inefficient. So it may be good advice to avoid "and" at the beginning of a sentence.

But it's not a rule and never has been. Ditto that for "but," "so" and "because."

"Hopefully" is another misunderstood word. Some people will tell you that it should modify only a verb, not a whole sentence, and that it should mean "in a hopeful manner" and not "I hope." In other words, "I will hopefully await your reply" is correct but "Hopefully, tomorrow will be sunny" is incorrect.

Wrong. The sentence-modifying "hopefully" has been an established form in English for hundreds of years. People only began fussing over it in the mid-1960s. And if you want to know whether "hopefully" can mean "I hope," you need only consult a dictionary.

When I read health-related articles, I often find myself smiling at the lengths writers and editors go to use "healthful" instead of "healthy." There's a popular myth that "healthy" means only "in good health" and is never synonymous with "healthful," which means "promoting good health."

Any dictionary will tell you that's just not true, just as it will do away with a widespread mistake about "nauseous" and "nauseated."

The old line suggests that "nauseous" means "causing nausea" — not feeling it. So if you say "I'm nauseous" it means you make others sick. That would be great fun if it were true. But, like so many other language rules that begin with the words "it's wrong to," it's not.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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