Do grammar rules ever become outdated? Of course, they do. Three primary examples of errors that no longer matter include ending a sentence with a preposition, splitting an infinitive, and beginning a sentence with a conjunction. While language requires structure, it is fluid and changes with the ages.
A spirited discussion erupted in the office the other day about ending sentences with a preposition. Dear Megan is OK with this, to the great surprise of my coworkers, who obviously think I am some sort of tyrannical grammar purist with no ability to adapt. Nonsense. Language is fluid (OK, I have to throw this in here: to a degree), and I can adapt. I can adapt the hell out of grammar.
Don’t get me wrong: Dear Megan likes proper grammar and the rules that support it. I also like style guides (AP! AP! AP!), to-do lists and anything else that gives my life order. But some grammar rules aren’t even rules; they’re someone’s attempt to assert linguistic superiority or the pet peeve of some former grade school teacher.
<record scratch, hair toss>
…are made to be broken.
Here are three outdated grammar rules you don’t need to worry about anymore:
1. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
This misguided notion is a leftover from the rules of Latin grammar, but like payphones, roadmaps and any member of the Kardashian family, it just isn’t relevant anymore. Why? I’ll let Winston Churchill sum it up: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”
See? That’s ridiculous. Nobody talks that way. This over-application of a real or perceived rule of grammar is called hypercorrection, and it’s usually produced by someone trying to appear formal or educated. In an attempt to apply the rule and be “correct,” the result is incorrect by all modern usage standards.
When shouldn’t you end a sentence with a preposition? When it’s unnecessary to the meaning of the sentence.
“Where are you going to?” should simply be, “Where are you going?”
2. Don’t split an infinitive.
Infinitives are those two-word verb forms that begin with “to” such as “to read,” “to see” or “to go.” You split them when you insert an adverb in the middle. For example, who remembers the starship Enterprise? Its mission was, in part:
(Interesting side note: That quote — “To boldly go where no man has gone before” — is from the original ’60s series. The more recent and gender-sensitive series replaced “no man” with “no one.” Now back to our regularly scheduled grammar lesson.)
Boldly comes in between to and go, “splitting” it. The idea that these shouldn’t be split most likely originated with Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury, and his 1864 book “The Queen’s English,” in which he wrote there was “no good reason” to split the infinitive.
This morphed over time to a hard-and-fast rule that it was incorrect to do so, but it isn’t. Both the Oxford and Merriam-Webster English usage dictionaries have no beef with it, and even Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty proclaims, “Today almost everyone agrees that it is OK to split infinitives.”
Grammar Girl has ruled. Let’s move on.
3. Don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction.
School children everywhere are getting points off their essays for beginning sentences with “And,” “But,” So” and “Or,” but this is mere grammar superstition. According to the Chicago Manual of Style:
There is a widespread belief — one with no historical or grammatical foundation — that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as ‘and,’ ‘but,’ or ‘so.’ In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.
The origins of this “rule” are more of a mystery than the others. Steven Pinker, author of ‘The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,’ thinks it arose from the need to teach children where to break their sentences. Apparently, with no firm guideline and a penchant for feeding misinformation to children, teachers simply said it was incorrect to begin a sentence with a conjunction — and another erroneous grammar rule was born.
And although not everybody believes it’s a conjunction, feel free to begin your sentences with “because” as well. Why? Because Dear Megan knows what she’s talking about. To boldly go where no tyrannical grammar purist has gone before — that’s the mission, people.
Classics never go out of style. This article was originally published in 2015. It’s been refreshed with new imagery.