LANGTIVISM | THE TOP THREE GRAMMATICAL SUPERSTITIONS

By Rahaman Onike

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Out of all the complaints about grammar, there are top three grammatical superstitions that define the dynamic nature of English language.  There are arguments for and against the use of the three contentious  forms of usage which are referred to as a trio of sacred cows by modern users of the language.

First in the category is the rule that states that “never begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’”.  The historical beginnings  of this rule are not altogether clear, but it does have some logical basis: too many sentences beginning with ‘and’ or ‘but’ make for choppy, monotonous reading.  But used discriminately, this is often a good way to begin a sentence (Webb, 2006).  Let’s look at these two sentences: “And though Goodluck has a terrible reputation, he does deserve credit for trying to live up to it”.

The second example is a sentence that starts with ‘but’ thus: “But even his most enthusiastic efforts fall a little short” (Astle and Metcalfe, 2006).

Beginning a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ often is a way of cutting overlong sentences into two.  Let’s look at a good example of too long sentence: Poor Robert ate a loaf of bread before he went to the party, and he spaced his drinks carefully, but he still capped the evening by reciting Adamson’s poems in the nude.  The long sentence may be split into two thus: Poor Robert ate a loaf of bread before going to the party, and he spaced his drinks carefully.  But Robert still capped the evening by reciting Adamson’s poems in the nude.

Never begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ is considered one of the more persistent grammatical superstitions (King, 2009).  This is curious, because many of the finest writers in the English language – Shakespeare, Blake, Tennyson, Kipling, to name just four- have kicked off sentences with ‘And’, and so has the Bible: read the opening chapter.  Probably the most popular rebel was Blake, who chose to begin his poem (better known as Jerusalem) with “And did those feat in ancient …”

Much the same applies to But.  This time Thomas Macaulay, in his ‘The History of England’, is the hero of the rebel cause: He states in his classics: ‘There were gentlemen and there were seamen in the navy of Charles the second.  But the seamen were not gentlemen, and the gentlemen were not seamen’.

There is no rule to say that you can’t begin a sentence or a paragraph with the conjunction ‘But’.  When you want to express a doubt or outright disagreement, beginning a sentence with ‘But’ can emphasize and dramatize your point.  But don’t let it become a sloppy habit.

The Daily Express some years ago carried a memorable sentence in its sporting pages that not only began with ‘But’, but ended with ‘but’.  And the sentence that followed it began with ‘And’:  “Northumberland and Humberside will each hold the trophy for six months after fighting out an exciting 1-1 draw”.  But if the result was indecisive, then the soccer was anything but.  And when all the medals have been engraved…”  The sentence, as you will have been, is all at once a simple, complex and beautiful construction.

Therefore, there is nothing pernicious in starting a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’ provided the practice is kept under proper control.  For the purpose of emphasis, there is very good precedent as earlier stated in the Old Testament where innumerable verses start with either of these two words.  When a sentence starts with ‘But’, a contrast with the preceding sentence is implied.  ‘And’ and ‘But’, however, are the only conjunction with which one can start a simple sentence (A simple sentence is a sentence without a secondary sentence or clause).

The idea that it was inelegant to begin a sentence with ‘And’ is now as good as dead.  To use ‘and’ in this position can be a useful way of indicating that what you are about to say will reinforce way you have just said (Gowers, 2015).  Beginning a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ can be an effective technique so long as you don’t use it so often that it  loses its dramatic effect for the reader (Weaver and Weaver, 2000).

Second of the two sacred cows is the superstition that “never end a sentence with a preposition”.  This is another grammatical rule that used to be rigidly adhered to by the users of language that sentences must not end in prepositions.  The rule harks back to Latin, because a Latin sentence cannot end in a preposition.  However, this did not mean that English had to follow suit.  This rule is now regularly broken and in fact nowadays most people do not see much point in it.  Wags often distort this rule to read: “Never end a sentence with a proposition.  In either case, however, breaking the rule often results in the most effective (and rewarding) communication”.

The logic behind the preposition rule seems to be double-barreled.  Ending a sentence with a preposition is objected to by some grammarians saying that since prepositions always have objects, it’s better to have that object directly following the preposition.  Again, their belief is that since a preposition is a relatively unimportant word, it weakens a sentence to place it at the important end spot.  But logical though both these barrels may be, they cause some silly sentences when followed rigidly.

The normal rhythms of English language almost demand that we end many sentences with prepositions.  This is particularly true of questions e.g. whose room were you coming out of?  Another relevant example: what did she hit you with?

In the opinion of Webb (2000), ending a sentence with a preposition is not always a good idea, but it is not always a bad one, either.  The ear and good sense should rule.

The foundation of the incorrect belief that one cannot end a sentence with a preposition may have been the apparent meaning of the word ‘preposition’ itself signifying “before position”.  Of course, the rule that a sentence shouldn’t end with a preposition was first introduced in the seventeenth century, but as we have seen, it has been ignored particularly in informal usage e.g. “That was the man I was talking to” is normal in informal contexts (Crystal, 2002).

Third of the trio sacred cows in usage is the split infinitive.  Of all the sacred cows of grammar, the rule against splitting infinitives undoubtedly has the most dedicated following.  And even those who are not convinced that splitting an infinitive is immoral usually keep their infinitives intact to avoid censure.  For splitting infinitive has become a sacrosanct taboo.  Actually, this is not very reasonable, because first class writers have been dismembering infinitives for six hundred years or more.

A split infinitive occurs when the infinitive or base form of a verb has an adverb or adverbial phrase put between the word ‘to’ and the relevant verb.  A much quoted example is ‘to boldly go’, from the introduction of the TV series Star Trek.  If you are determined to avoid splitting the infinitive you have to say ‘boldly to go’ or ‘to go boldly ’.

The problem with avoiding splitting infinitives is that you can end up with a piece of written English that sounds unnatural, stilted or with a meaning that is altered.  For example, the sentence: “He went home to quickly think about his options”.  The sentence means the man is thinking about things in a reflective, contemplative way.  If we rewrite the sentence thus: “He quietly went home to think about his options”.  We are talking about the quiet manner in which he traveled home.  If we rewrite the sentence to read: “He went home to think quietly about his options” reads better than last one, but the big questions is that what was so hard to understand about the first usage.  It’s hard to come up with a sensible reason why any usage should be forbidden if it is clear and understandable.

The irascible George Bernard Shaw, for example, held the split infinitive in high esteem.  In action, the split infinitive looks something like this: I’d like to really tie one on.  To mend this bleeding infinitive, a writer has two possible choices to either write: I’d really like to tie one on or I’d like really to tie one on.  It can be argued, of course, that it really doesn’t make too much difference in this case.  Regardless of the condition of the infinitive, the message is still clear.  On the other hand, more perceptive reader will recognise that there is a slight difference in meaning in the previous sentences.  In the first sentence, ‘really’ refers to the extent of the proposed bender.  In the second sentence, ‘really’ refers to the extent of the desire for the bender.  Sense may therefore demand splitting an infinitive, but if you split it, people may shake their heads sadly and whisper “ignoramus” behind your back. This is the problem that faces the writers using any of the three sacred cows.

One should not hesitate to split an infinitive if the sense of the sentence requires that you do.  Consider this sentence for example: “He hoped to more than double his income in the following year”.  It is a good sentence; yet, the infinitive is split, and needs to be.  Of course, you shouldn’t split an infinitive without carefully noting its effect on the sentence.  If the resulting sentence is clumsy or unclear, a split infinite may be the cause of the problem.  But a sentence that is clear and graceful can easily survive a split infinitive.

Given the above background information, one would realise that in current writing especially in informal writing with rather short sentences ‘and’ or ‘but’ often stands at the beginning of sentences.  If these usage become conspicuous, some of the and’s or but’s should be dropped or two sentences put together as a compound sentence (Perrin, 2000).

As in the case  with avoiding the splitting of infinitives or avoiding putting preposition at the end of a sentence or clause can easily lead to written language sounding unnatural and stilted.  The most acceptable and sensible thing to do with regard to prepositions is to put them where they sound most natural.  Sometimes the best position to place a preposition depends on whether the context is formal or informal (Kirkpatrick, 2014).

In the final analysis, splitting infinitive may be tolerated as long  it doesn’t resort into awkward and ambiguous sentences.  Although opinion is divided about the importance of avoiding split infinitives, everyone agrees that adverbial constructions of more than one word make an ugly effect in the split-infinitive position as shown in the sentence below: “I want to soberly and patiently analyse the problem”.  The sentence can be revised thus: “I want to analyse the problem soberly and patiently” or “I want to make a sober and patient analysis…” (Crews, 2000).

Often the split infinitive sounds perfectly natural, but sometimes it can sound unnecessarily awkward.  So the appropriateness of any of the trio of sacred cows depend on linguistic environment and situational contexts.

 

REFERENCES

Astle C. and J.E. Metcalfe (2006) Correct English: Ghana, EPP Books Services pp 27-30

Crews F. (2000) The Random House Handbook: New York, Random House Publishers pp 315-316

Crystal D. (2002) The English Language- A guided Tour of the Language: England, Penguin Books pp 30-31

Gowers E. (2015) Plain English: United Kingdom, Penguin Random House pp 176-177

King G. (2009) Improve your Grammar: Glasgow, Herper Collins Publishers pp 46-47

Kirkpatick B. (2014) Better English Usage: Scotlanf, Geddes & Grosset Publishing Company

Perrin P.G. (2000) Writer’s Guide and Index to English: Chicago, Scott, Foresman and Company pp 429-430

Weaver P.C. and R.G. Weaver (2000) Persuasive Writing: A Manager’s Guide to effective Letters and Reports: London, Collier Macmillan Publishers pp 152-253

Webb R.L. (2006) Grammar for People who wouldn’t Have to Worry About it if they didn’t have children: California, Crowell- Collier Press pp 101-107

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