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To Grammar’s House

Spring cleaning for grammar rules

A cleaning service

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Even grammar rules can use a good spring cleaning.

“To Grammar’s House” is a regular column by the Boston Globe copy desk on the style and language used in the newspaper.

The story may be apocryphal, and like many apocryphal stories, it’s so good that we can only hope it’s true. But according to innumerable fuzzy sources, Winston Churchill, upon being told that it is grammatically incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition, replied: “That is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put!” It’s the perfect riposte, arguing against an edict by illustrating how ridiculous that edict would be if put into practice.

Grammar’s House is full of rules designed to keep our prose clear and readable. But like our own houses, Grammar’s House can get a bit cluttered sometimes, often with rules that are capricious, spurious, or flat-out erroneous. Perhaps it’s time for a good spring cleaning.

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Let’s start with the terminal preposition rule that Churchill is said to have railed so brilliantly against. The rule came to us from Latin, but sometimes rules based on Latin simply don’t fit the structure of English.

H.W. Fowler, whose 1926 “Dictionary of Modern English Usage” is considered a classic reference manual, was unequivocal about the preposition rule: “It was once a cherished superstition that prepositions must be kept true to their name [pre-position] and placed before the word they govern. Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are ‘inelegant’ are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards. The legitimacy of the prepositional ending must be uncompromisingly maintained.”

I’m with Fowler. It seems to me that we should feel free to go ahead and end our sentence with a preposition if it sounds natural to do so, if it sounds as if that is the way we would speak the sentence, and if avoiding the terminal preposition results in the stilted, awkward type of sentence that Churchill invoked.

A second canard is a rule foisted upon us by our middle school English teachers: “Never split an infinitive,” that is, never place an adverb between the two parts of the infinitive form of a verb. This misguided rule was perhaps most famously broken in the introduction to the 1960s TV show “Star Trek,” in which the narrator dramatically exclaimed: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Like the preposition rule, the infinitive rule derives from Latin, and again, it’s a rule that doesn’t necessarily translate to English. In fact, sometimes the best place for an adverb is right before the verb it modifies. To put it elsewhere could even change the sentence’s meaning.

What would happen, for instance, if we moved the adverb after the verb in the following sentence: “The teacher wanted to flatly forbid singing.” Go ahead and split your infinitive if not doing so alters your meaning. I would even say go ahead and split the infinitive if not doing so makes the sentence sound clunky. To my ear, “To go boldly where no man has gone before” sounds clunky -- and splitting the infinitive sounds infinitely better.

A third mythical rule has it that we must never begin a sentence with a conjunction. Why not? No one knows! Generations of schoolchildren have been told that conjunctions should be used only to join two clauses or phrases within a sentence. But today, most grammarians agree that conjunctions also may be used to join sentences. Like the one starting the preceding sentence.

And now that we’ve swept these three rules out of Grammar’s House, we can try to longingly imagine a world that such pedantry has no place in.

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