As a middle school English teacher, a huge chunk of my curriculum is grammar instruction. Which places me in the position, every year, of foisting on trusting, naive students grammar rules that even I know to be stilted, antiquated, or just plain silly.
Below is a list of 10 grammar conventions that I would immediately eliminate if only someone would let me run the Grammar Police.
Consider this my blanket apology to all the students I have necessarily confounded over the years. Sorry, guys.
- Using singular plurals to represent singular/gender unknown antecedents. Here's what we're supposed to say: "A writer [ANTECEDENT] may edit his or her [PRONOUN] manuscript many times before submittal." Why the incredibly awkward construct his or her? Because, technically, the noun writer is singular/gender unknown, which means you're supposed to use a pronoun that is singular/gender unknown: hence, the ridiculously pompous his or her. Can't we all agree that if we say "A writer may edit their manuscript many times before submittal," we're not automatically assuming more than one writer?
- Given a compound subject joined by the conjunction "or", pronouns must agree with the final noun in the list. Here's what we're supposed to say: "Either Jim or Susan needs to bring her laptop with her to the meeting." Why her? Because grammarians will tell you that when presented with the construct Jim or Susan, the pronoun should match the gender/number of the last item in the list. Which stinks for Jim, who has now been called her not once, but twice, for no better reason than he happened to come first in the list. Surely sane people can agree that using a plural pronoun - "Either Jim or Susan needs to bring their laptop with them" - is a lot more natural, and a lot less likely to get you punched in the nose.
- Words that end in "one" or "body" should be treated as singular pronouns. Sorry - just can't resist one more rant about pronouns. Based on the above rule, the sentences "None of them are ready" should be correctly read "None of them is ready"; the sentence "Somebody should claim their cocktail before I dispose of it" should be correctly written: "Somebody should claim his or her cocktail before I dispose of it." Just when I start feeling a little swollen-headed because we Americans have taken the forefront over other European languages in dropping unnecessary articles and adopting the universal "you" for 1st/2nd/3rd tense possessive, a rule like this comes along and makes me hang my head in dismay.
- Who or whom? Depends on whether you are using the pronoun as a subject or a direct object in the sentence, to which I reply: who or whom cares? I think it's time we relegate whom to the annals of pronoun forms whose time have passed, alongside thee/thou and one.
- Don't split infinitives. An infinitive is a verb combined with the word "to" - as in, to hunt, to wonder, to spell. Technically, you're not supposed to insert any words in between the "to" and the verb. But can you imagine Captain Kirk solemnly intoning, instead of the timeless "To boldly go where no man has gone before," the grammatically correct "Boldly to go where no man has gone before"? In the first version he sounds like a hero; in the second version, more like the kind of nerd who reads science fiction novels but would never go there himself. Time for us to accept that sometimes exceptions to this rule are okay.
- Don't start sentences with And or But. But, what if you want to position two sentences in opposition to each other, as I've just done? (Clever, huh?) And sometimes you just want to elaborate on a sentence by adding an additional sentence, as I've just done here. I suspect the reason for this rule is to prevent insecure writers from unwittingly employing sentence fragments. Having spent years as a middle school English teacher undoing the harm this has done, can't we decided to stop teaching this "non-rule" like it's a rule?
- Don't end a sentence with a preposition. Thus, "There's the boy I'm going with" should be correctly written: "There's the boy with whom I'm going." Not only does this sound stilted, but it risks running headlong into rule #6 regarding the use of who/whom. Occassionally ending a sentence with a preposition is not only acceptable, but necessary.
- Paragraphs should have 5 sentences. Speaking of non-rules, here's another one that English teachers consistently foist upon their gullible students. Meant (I suspect) as a way to force students to elaborate on their main ideas with sufficient detail, what this rule more typically does is encourage writers to invent 1-2 original thoughts, then repeat them using slightly different wording 1-2 more times. The rule is this, people: paragraphs should contain a main idea and only as much supporting detail as necessary to elaborate on the main idea.