Lies Your English Teacher Taught You

Some of you blame your teachers (English or otherwise) for writing advice that is not even true for English or doesn’t apply every time. Please stop believing that these are rules:  

Don’t end sentences with a preposition.

People who believed Latin was better than English tried to impose Latin structure. We can see why. While the French ruled England for 200 years, English was left to the commoners. They simplified it—you may thank them for dropping the Germanic endings—but hundreds of years later, well-educated English-speakers were still ashamed of their language, as though it were a lower class, unkempt language that needed to grow up and be like the Latin-based languages they also spoke. Imposing structures from other languages doesn’t work. Languages do evolve, but they add vocabulary, while their structures don’t change much. When they do, they tend toward entropy, becoming less complicated over centuries. 

Compared to Latin, English has more flexible preposition options. Some are natural for ending sentences. Winston Churchill once defended a sentence-ending proposition by saying, “This is nonsense up with which I will not put.” That sounds awkward because we could say “I won’t put up with this nonsense” or “This is nonsense I won’t put up with,” ending with two prepositions. Many English prepositions are that flexible. Have you ever gone above and beyond? There, the implied object (the call of duty) can even be dropped.

Maybe your teacher objected to “Where is it at?” Yes, that is redundant and regional. “Where is it?” is more expected, but if you want to convey a regional dialect, adding “at” is effective there. 

Don’t split infinitives.

Again, Latin structure was imposed on English where it did not fit. English infinitives are two words: to + verb, making it possible to split them. Yes, you may say, “to go boldly,” or you may split it: “to boldly go where no one has gone before,” depending on the rhetorical situation and the effect you’re after.

Don’t use sentence fragments.

In school, you practiced recognizing and forming complete thoughts by completing every sentence. Now that you know the difference, you have options. Professional writers use fragments for effect. Often.

Don’t begin a sentence with And or But.

Not a rule. And professional writers do it all the time. But you could connect these with commas instead. You have stylistic choices.

Do not use contractions.

It depends. Contractions are too casual for some journals and some sentences, while avoiding a contraction can feel stuffy elsewhere. 

Ain’t ain’t a word.

’Tis the archaic contraction for am not, which became associated with the less educated in literature, then dropped and vilified by the educated. Use with discretion.   

Don’t say I. 

Sometimes applies. In academic writing, our tradition is third person, keeping authors as invisible as possible. Also, some teachers wanted you to think about others more than yourself or be inclusive. In most writing, it can be appropriate to claim an opinion or experience as your own. Some, trying not to mention themselves, resort to the royal We, which is worse. If your we refers to your reader or your team, then that works. For a personal anecdote, I or me is more accurate and often appropriate. 

What other so-called rules do you wonder about?

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