On my bookshelf sits a small pile of books. Among them:
- Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Associated Press Stylebook
- Garner’s Modern English Usage
I’ve not referenced them in years. If I have a question about English grammar, usage, or style, I ask Google. It’s faster, easier, and more up to date.
Still, the books hold a special place in my heart. Each contains lessons about English that has quenched my curiosity, fueled my passion, and contributed to my growth as a writer.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that English is not the restrictive, rule-bound language we’re taught in grammar school. It is, in fact, highly flexible, incredibly forgiving, and ever-changing.
An (oversimplified) history of English grammar
English is a Germanic language, a description that used to confuse me. I always thought English had more in common with French or Spanish than German. (Says the American writer who speaks a mere handful of words in French, Spanish, German, or any foreign language.)
My meager analysis did have some merit, though. The Germanic origins of English are rooted way back in the 5th century when the Angles and Saxons first made a home in the British Isles. In the following centuries the language transformed as speakers encountered, traded with, were conquered by, and married foreign peoples (notably, the Vikings and Normans).
By the time scholars started writing down English grammar rules in the late 1500s, the language barely resembled the Old English of yore. It had absorbed much French and Latin. But that didn’t make it a Romance language. So when they tried to apply Latin grammar to English, they ran into some issues:
"The first English grammars were modelled on Latin grammars. These made English appear to fall short in a number of ways. It is not possible to end a sentence with a preposition in Latin; double negatives are not used in Latin; double comparatives are impossible in Latin; infinitives cannot be split in Latin. A sense that English was inferior became inbuilt. . . As a result of this bias towards foreign grammar, written English was set against the grain of spoken English.” - Christopher Mulvey, The Development of English Grammar, an English Project Talk
The separation between written English grammar and spoken English continued right through to the 20th century. According to Christopher Mulvey (quoted above), more permissive attitudes about grammar didn’t gain traction until the 1960s - perhaps explaining why Boomers are so much more persnickety about grammar than their kids or grand kids.
Some rules are worth breaking
Many English grammar “rules” are really the preferences of snooty dead men. Despite being refuted by modern linguists, these grammar myths are so ingrained they not only survive, but thrive.
Never end a sentence with a preposition
Although Churchill never really said it, the “up with which I will not put” quote illustrates how tongue tied you can get trying to abide by this grammar myth. Prepositions like with, of, at, and up are perfectly natural and grammatical at the end of an English sentence.
Never split an infinitive
The mission statement for the Starship Enterprise contains perhaps the most famous split infinitive of all time. The rule against inserting an adverb (like “boldly”) into an an infinitive verb (like “to go”) comes from the fact that in Latin infinitives are just one word and cannot be split. Many editors find the split infinitive undesirable, but it is not ungrammatical.
Never start a sentence with a conjunction
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, we can’t blame Latinists for this one. The false prohibition against starting sentences with words like and, or, or but most likely came from English teachers trying to stop students from writing sentence fragments.
But some rules are here to stay
Writing the way you want while telling self-appointed grammar cops where they can stick their “rules” can be fun; it can also make your writing more colorful.
HOWEVER, grammar is ultimately about structuring your writing so that it is understandable. If your goal is clear, concise, intelligent communication, you can’t simply ignore grammar.
One of the legacies of English’s mixed heritage (Old English, Norse, French, Latin) is a whole barrel of words that no longer seem to make any sense: words like bring, choose, make, and eat that inexplicably turn into brought, chose, made, and ate in the past tense. But unless you want your communications to sound like they were written by a lolcat, you have got to get these right.
I am is a statement. Am I is a question. Getting your words in the right order is vital. Even Yoda's grammar is carefully crafted to sound unusual yet deliver a calculated message. If you don’t pay attention to word order, you could end up saying something you really don’t mean.
Punctuation (technically not grammar, but close enough)
Sure, it can be hard to remember exactly where to put a comma, or worse, a semicolon. In the age of text-speak and emoji, punctuation may even seem antiquated. (Dan Bilefsky has a brilliant piece on the disappearing period.) But when we speak, we use pauses and inflection to convey meaning not easily translated to paper. Punctuation fills this gap and makes your writing easier to understand.
When in doubt
The cool thing about English is that even if you a mistake your readers will probably catch your meaning. In fact, authors, poets, and playwrights have been breaking grammar rules on purpose since forever.
Still, there is a difference between breaking grammar rules for effect and just plain bad writing. Poor grammar can have real consequences. When in doubt, it is best to use formal grammar (even if that means honoring your boss’s pet peeve against split infinitives).