A Word, Please: Grammar rules can't be taken on faith

Most of what you think you know about grammar is wrong.

That’s the title of a recent Smithsonian magazine article by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellarman. It’s also destined to be my first tattoo.

Just about every week, I spend several hours explaining to people that some beloved teacher, parent or grandparent pumped their heads full of hogwash. As a result, much of what they think they know about grammar is wrong. A tattoo saying as much would help me dispense with the long explanations. Then my listeners could more quickly move on to the business of shooting the messenger.

O’Conner and Kellarman’s article debunks supposed “rules” against splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions and beginning sentences with conjunctions, especially “and.” As so many people were taught in the 1950s and ’60s, these are wrong, wrong and wrong. But in fact, these prohibitions are just longtime superstitions. They’re not true today, and they never were.

My best guess is that these prohibitions started out as writing suggestions that work quite well in certain situations. Then a generation of control freaks decided to tell kids these were absolute rules, even though they weren’t.

O’Conner and Kellarman made that clear, but they only scratched the surface. Bad grammar information isn’t limited to this Big Three of linguistic baloney. It seems that every month I’m gobsmacked to learn of some new myth.

Here, off the top of my head, are just a few of the grammar “rules” people have told me that they were taught.

You can’t use “healthy” to mean “healthful.”

You can’t use “nauseous” to mean “nauseated.”

You can’t begin a sentence with “it.”

The word “got” is always wrong.

You can’t say “graduate college.” You must say “graduate from college.”

It’s wrong to say “I feel bad.” You must say “I feel badly.” (On the contrary, “I feel bad” is the grammatical choice because “feel” in this sentence is what’s called a copular verb and copular verbs take adjectives, not adverbs, as their complements. It’s the same reason you say “I feel happy” instead of “I feel happily.”)

“Irregardless” isn’t a word.

“Impact” is not a verb, only a noun.

“Hopefully” means only “in a hopeful manner.” It can’t be used to mean “it is hoped” or “I hope that.”

You can’t say, “More importantly.” You must say instead “More important.”

You can’t say, “More important.” You must say instead, “More importantly.”

You can’t use “entitled” to mean “titled.” (Confession: That was me. I misinterpreted a publishing style rule as a universal rule.)

Adverbs without their “ly” endings, as in “Drive slow,” are always wrong. (In fact, “slow” and many other adjectives also moonlight, quite correctly, as adverbs. They’re called flat adverbs.)

You can’t use “disinterested” to mean “uninterested.”

“Data” always takes a singular verb like “is” and never a plural verb like “are.”

“Data” always takes a plural verb like “are” and never a singular verb like “is.” (In fact, it can take either.)

All these supposed rules — along with others far too numerous to fit here — are, quite simply, wrong. Why should you take my word for it? You shouldn’t. I’m not relying on my own authority here. I’m researching what real authorities say.

My sources, which I recommend keeping handy, include Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Garner’s Modern American Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and in some cases, even Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.”

Enough time thumbing through guides like these proves that any grammar rule that begins with “you can’t” or “it’s wrong to” should never be taken on faith.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is 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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