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Going back to the roots of English grammar to uncover its many myths (Illustration by Traci Daberko)

Most of What You Think You Know About Grammar Is Wrong

And ending sentences with a preposition is nothing worth worrying about

You’ve probably heard the old story about the pedant who dared to tinker with Winston Churchill’s writing because the great man had ended a sentence with a preposition. Churchill’s scribbled response: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

It’s a great story, but it’s a myth. And so is that so-called grammar rule about ending sentences with prepositions. If that previous sentence bugs you, by the way, you’ve bought into another myth. No, there’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction, either. But perhaps the biggest grammar myth of all is the infamous taboo against splitting an infinitive, as in “to boldly go.” The truth is that you can’t split an infinitive: Since “to” isn’t part of the infinitive, there’s nothing to split. Great writers—including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne and Wordsworth—have been inserting adverbs between “to” and infinitives since the 1200s.

Where did these phony rules originate, and why do they persist?

For some of them, we can blame misguided Latinists who tried to impose the rules of their favorite language on English. Anglican bishop Robert Lowth popularized the prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition in his 1762 book, A Short Introduction to English Grammar; while Henry Alford, a dean of Canterbury Cathedral, was principally responsible for the infinitive taboo, with his publication of A Plea for the Queen’s English in 1864.

In Latin, sentences don’t end in prepositions, and an infinitive is one word that can’t be divided. But in a Germanic language like English, as linguists have pointed out, it’s perfectly normal to end a sentence with a preposition and has been since Anglo-Saxon times. And in English, an infinitive is also one word. The “to” is merely a prepositional marker. That’s why it’s so natural to let English adverbs fall where they may, sometimes between “to” and a verb.

We can’t blame Latinists, however, for the false prohibition against beginning a sentence with a conjunction, since the Romans did it too (Et tu, Brute?). The linguist Arnold Zwicky has speculated that well-meaning English teachers may have come up with this one to break students of incessantly starting every sentence with “and.” The truth is that conjunctions are legitimately used to join words, phrases, clauses, sentences—and even paragraphs.

Perhaps these “rules” persist because they are so easy to remember, and the “errors” are so easy to spot. Ironically, this is a case where the clueless guy who’s never heard of a preposition or a conjunction or an infinitive is more likely to be right.

As bloggers at Grammarphobia.com and former New York Times editors, we’ve seen otherwise reasonable, highly educated people turn their writing upside down to sidestep imaginary errors. There’s a simple test that usually exposes a phony rule of grammar: If it makes your English stilted and unnatural, it’s probably a fraud.

We can’t end this without mentioning Raymond Chandler’s response when a copy editor at the Atlantic Monthly decided to “fix” his hard-boiled prose: “When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split.”

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