Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Some Gnarly Grammar “Rules”

Catching up on my reading this summer, I recently finished Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Pinker, a cognitive scientist and linguist, is not only the author of several previous bestsellers on language; he’s also the chair of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel. So I believe we can regard his judgments on usage questions as sound.

Overall, his goal is to try to dispel the negativity that has come to surround “grammatical correctness” and to debunk many correctness myths. He distinguishes between “purists” (folks who naively believe that grammatical rules are like the Ten Commandments) and “experts on usage,” like himself, who understand that language and the rules that govern its use change over time.

Here’s what he had to say about the following issues that have caused me some confusion or consternation, and perhaps you as well:

–Questionable adverbs

We all know that modifiers of verbs need to take the adverb form . . . but is that always true?

The answer is no. Sometimes an adjective and adverb can have the same form, as in “a fast car”/”drive fast” or “a hard ball”/”hit the ball hard.” Pinker would also be fine with “drive safe,” “go slow,” “she sure fooled me,” “he spelled my name wrong,” and “the moon is shining bright,” since using the -ly form of these modifiers could seem “prissy.”

–Starting sentences with coordinate conjunctions

Pinker’s theory here is that grammar teachers of yore forbade starting sentences with “and” or “but” as a way to help students avoid fragments starting with these words. But that’s not a good reason to perpetuate the “rule,” in his view. He starts many sentences in this book with “and” or “but,” in fact, and sees nothing wrong with the practice as long as it seems stylistically appropriate.

–“Between you and I”

Pinker goes to great lengths to explain, on linguistic grounds, why this phrase is not grammatically wrong. But he concludes, still, that writers should avoid the expression, as it’s jarring to educated readers. Thank you.

–“Can” vs. “may”

Perhaps predictably, Pinker puts to rest the old rule that “can” should be used to refer to the feasibility of an action and “may” should be used to give permission to do the action. In his view, “the two words may (or can) be used more or less interchangeably” in the latter situation. (Pinker similarly skewer’s the distinction between “shall” and “will,” arguing that, except in a very few circumstances,” the former sounds “prissy.”)

–Dangling modifiers

Pinker asserts that “a thoughtlessly placed dangler can confuse the reader or slow her down,” invite “ludicrous misinterpretation,” and get the writer judged as “slovenly.” That said, he points out that, technically, the mistake is “not one of ungrammaticality but of ambiguity,” so his call would be to leave alone any unobtrusive danglers (as in “considering the hour, it is surprising that he arrived at all” or “looking at the subject dispassionately, what evidence is there for this theory?”).

–Use of possessives with gerunds

I’ve had students ask me if they need to use the possessive form of a noun or pronoun before a gerund (an -ing phrase acting as a noun), and I didn’t have a well-thought-out response. The answer, according to Pinker, is that the practice is based on spurious linguistic thinking—but that it has caught on enough to be appropriately applied, when possible, in formal writing. Hence, “I approve of Sheila taking the job” is fine in ordinary talk and writing, but “I approve of Sheila’s taking the job” would be the better version for formal writing.

He also advises that long and complicated agents are best left unmarked (as in this sentence: “I was annoyed by the people in line being served first,” not “people in line’s”), whereas simpler ones work well in the possessive form (as in “I appreciate your coming over to help”). I’m surprised, though, that, according to Pinker, the majority of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel was ok with “I can understand him not wanting to go.” Ugh. I think I’ll keep recommending the possessive form in such cases, especially in more formal speaking and writing. (Perhaps, if pressed, the panel would agree with me.)

–Conditionals (if-then statements)

I’m guessing that your students, like mine, have all but lost the ability to use the conditional tense correctly. Pinker’s distinction between “open conditionals” and “remote conditionals” might help us help them.

Here’s an “open conditional”: “If you leave now, you will get there on time.” It refers to an actual possibility for action. The “remote conditional” refers to a remote or hypothetical possibility, as in “If I were a rich man, I wouldn’t have to work hard.” The formula for this kind of sentence is to use the past tense in the “if” clause” and “would” or some other kind of auxiliary verb in the “then” clause.

–Use of “like,” “as,” and “such as”

Only after I left graduate school did I become aware that using “like” instead of “as” to introduce a dependent clause, as in “The committee conducted a comprehensive survey like we did,” was considered incorrect. But Pinker largely debunks this “rule,” which he calls “the product of grammatical ineptitude and historical ignorance,” since “like” can be a subordinating conjunction as well as a preposition. He narrowly grants, however, that “as” is the favored term in cases when the situation is formal. As with many of the issues he discusses, the educated ear must make the final call on this one.

“A related superstition,” he says, is that one must write “Many technical terms, such as [not like] cloning and DNA, have become familiar to laypeople.” False, he says—though, once again, the formality of the situation can make “like” sound inappropriate.

–Use of “than” and “as”

So which is right: “Rose is smarter than he” or Rose is smarter than him”? “He could not surf as well as she” or “He could not surf as well as her”? Here again, the difference is one of style, not grammar; the first versions “are more suited to formal language,” the latter “to writing that is closer to speech.”

Speaking of “than,” is it ok these days to say “different than the rest” instead of “different from the rest”? You can tell that Pinker is essentially fine with that—but the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, by a slim majority, still stands by “from.”

Pinker also discusses split infinitives, prepositions at ends of sentences, who vs. whom, which vs. that, and issues relating to expressions of quantity, quality, and degree (e.g., is it ok to say “between the three of us”? “very unique”?). There are no surprises here. Essentially, as with the previous examples, he grants the importance of understanding what educated people prefer while also crusading against  “hypercorrectness.” Same with using “they” occasionally to refer to a singular antecedent (e.g., “anybody”). His short, spotty section on punctuation continues in the same vein, with the need for clarity and common sense winning out over excess rule-following.

After the long section on grammatical issues comes a section on diction. This section is especially interesting and useful in that it contains a 20-page table assessing various expressions (e.g., using aggravate to mean “annoy” or raise instead of rear) in terms of what purists think about them, how people commonly use them, and what he thinks. His solution for some of these disputes, here and in other places in the book, is simple: “Look it up” (in a respected, current dictionary).

I’m glad I read this book, but it’s not the kind of book you can take excerpts from to hand out to your class. The finer linguistic arguments get tiresome, and, as someone who grew up doing regular sentence diagramming, I find Pinker’s tree diagrams (the kind linguists use) not worth the effort it would take to understand them (he exhibits a bit of audience blindness here, as he seems to think these diagrams are a snap for laypeople to follow).

But I hope this post will help you feel more knowledgeable and confident when helping your students write well. You can also share with them the book’s central point about correctness: It is a constantly changing concept that depends, at any given moment, on widespread usage, not on the judgment of an anointed committee of grammar police. Yet the prevailing conventions should be heeded. As Pinker says, “Style still matters”; it “ensures that writers will get their message across,” it “earns trust,” and it “adds beauty to the world” in the form of pleasing use of language. I’m with him.

One thought on “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Some Gnarly Grammar “Rules”

  1. Just got an email from Grammarly.com inviting me to subscribe to a premium plan. I’m interested in your reactions to these parts of their message:
    1) The subtitle for the subject line was “Breath deep. Find your center. Relax” (looks like the author wrote more, but this is the only part of the subtitle that showed–a problem we won’t discuss now). Are you ok with “Breath deep” instead of “Breath deeply”? I am. The former is more emphatic; the latter could sound too academic. And it’s an ad, so . . . some stylistic license seems ok to me.
    2) The banner across the top of the message read “REFLECT AND REFRESH YOUR WRITING SAVINGS EVENT.” I’m not sure I can trust a grammar website that lets wording like this go public. How about you? To begin with, there’s a danger that the reader will try to read the first words as saying “reflect your writing” and “refresh your writing,” the former of which is idiomatically incorrect by any English speaker’s standards. But the worse problem is that the first five words are actually being used as an adjective to describe “savings event” (which is so hard to figure out that most people won’t make the effort to try to make the wording make sense). And then there are the yelling all-caps.
    Not a good way to build their cred, in my view.

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