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Top 10 Useless, Outdated English Grammar Rules

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Unlike French, the English language does not have a language academy that polices usage norms across the E...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Unlike French, the English language does not have a language academy that polices usage norms across the English-speaking world. So notions of proper and improper grammar are mediated by the prescriptions of professional grammarians, dictionaries, and popular usage patterns, that is, by what the majority of the people speak.

William Lewis Safire, the late famous American grammar columnist, once said, “In the long run, usage calls the shots.” He meant that proper usage is, by and large, what people actually speak as opposed to what snooty, armchair grammarians prescribe.

That is why expressions that were regarded as unpardonable solecisms in one era may become perfectly legitimate and socially prestigious in another. Below I have identified once religiously observed usage conventions that have now lost currency in contemporary English grammar in both America and Britain.

1. “‘Each other’ is for two and ‘one another’ for three or more.” For several years, it was a grammatical taboo to use the phrase “each other” for more than two people or things (such as this sentence: “The three brothers like each other”) or to use “one another” for fewer than two people or things (such as this sentence: “The husband and wife love one another”).

In contemporary grammar, however, the distinction between the two phrases has disappeared. They can now legitimately be used interchangeably. The current edition of Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one of America’s most authoritative dictionaries, writes: “Some handbooks and textbooks recommend that each other be restricted to reference to two and one another to reference to three or more. The distinction, while neat, is not observed in actual usage. Each other and one another are used interchangeably by good writers and have been since at least the 16th century.”

Before you think this is an American grammatical deviation, read what Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, two of Britain’s leading grammarians, wrote in their celebrated Longman Guide to English Usage: “There is no basis for the superstition that ‘each other’ should refer to two people or things, and ‘one another’ to more than two.”

2 “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.” Many old grammar books taught that it was unacceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction, such as “and,” “but,” and “or.” Sentences like, “And it came to pass that his wish was fulfilled,” “But how do we know that he is real?” “Or we can change the rules as we go” would have attracted swift rebuke from grammatical purists. But from the late twentieth century (notice that I began my sentence with a “but”!) the rule began to change. Now, it is perfectly proper—and, in fact, very effective especially in advertising and creative writing—to begin sentences with conjunctions, i.e., with “and,” “but” and “or.”

3.  “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” It was also considered bad grammar to end sentences with prepositions. So instead of writing, “I don’t remember the name of the drug he was addicted to,” grammarians of the previous generation would write, “I don’t remember the name of the drug to which he was addicted.”

This rule emerged from the uncritical, unreflective mimicry of the syntactical structure of Latin, the language of science and scholarship in Europe until the 17th century. But the “no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence” rule is not only counter-intuitive and senseless, it is also antithetical to the natural rhythm of the English language. How do you, for instance, avoid ending with a preposition in the following sentences: “I don’t know what she is talking ABOUT” (who says “I don’t know about what she is talking”?); “What does she look LIKE?” (who says “What like does she look?”), “The details have been attended TO.”

Since English was first written, revered writers in the language have ended sentences with prepositions. The demonization of this practice started when English-speaking Latin enthusiasts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries attempted to impose the structure of their newfound language on the then less socially prestigious English, which used to be called a “vernacular” language. Today, many serious writers ignore the rule because it’s patently stupid and unnatural. Late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the stupidity of the rule when, in an elegant mockery of the "no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence" rule, he famously quipped: "This is the kind of nonsense up with which I shall not put"!

4 “‘Between’ is for two and ‘among’ for three or more.” This rule is still partly relevant. The problem is that it tends to be over-generalized. It is still the case that where more than two persons or things are involved, “among” should be preferred to “between,” as in: “The books were divided between the two students/among the three students.”

However, when we speak of exact positions or of precise individual relationships, “between” is the only acceptable choice. For instance, it is wrong to write: “A memorandum of understanding among five African countries.” It should properly be “A memorandum of understanding BETWEEN five African countries. “African” brings precision to the relationship. Similarly, it is wrong to say “Nigeria lies among Cameroun, Niger, Benin and Chad.” It should be “Nigeria lies BETWEEN Cameroun, Niger, Benin and Chad.” The mention of the names of the countries surrounding Nigeria brings exactness to the relationship.

5. “It’s machete, not matchet.” This distinction is a staple of Nigerian newspaper grammar columnists. But the truth is that both forms are acceptable to refer to the large heavy knife used as a weapon or for cutting vegetation. Matchet is the older form and machete is the more contemporary form, but both words are rarely used in American and British English because the people in these countries have no use for the instrument. Lawn movers and guns do the jobs that machetes do in Nigeria and elsewhere in the Third World. Machete is pronounced “mashe-tee” while matchet is pronounced “ma-chit.”

6. “Avoid split infinitives.” First, what is an infinitive? A simple definition of an infinitive is that it is the uninflected (i.e., unchanged) form of a verb. That means it is the basic form of a verb with or without the particle “to.” Examples: “to go” or simply “go”; “to see” or simply “see”; “to eat” or simply “eat.” In grammar, these verbs will be regarded as “inflected” if/when they change form to reflect change in tense or number. For instance, when “go/ to go” changes to “went” or “goes” or “gone” it will no longer be an infinitive; it will be regarded as inflected.

So a split infinitive occurs when an adverb ( e.g. those words that end with “ly” such as “beautifully,” “nicely,” “boldly,” etc) comes between the particle “to” and the uninflected form of a verb. Examples: “They were told TO SERIOUSLY THINK about their plans,” “You ought TO DEFINITELY SEE him,” “They are sure TO NICELY say hello to you,” etc. In the first example, “seriously” comes between “to” and “think,” in the second sentence “definitely” appears between “to” and “see,” and in the third sentence “nicely” comes between “to” and “say.”

From the eighteenth century to much of the twentieth century, the split infinitive was regarded as an unpardonable solecism. So, for example, the sentence “you ought to definitely see him” would have been corrected to “you definitely ought to see him.” Notice that the adverb (that is, “definitely”) is no longer between “to” and “see”. But the “no-split-infinitive” rule is another mechanical and thoughtless transference of Latin grammar to English. Modern grammarians have now discarded it. So feel no guilt when you split your infinitives.

7. “He and “his” as generic third-person singular pronouns. In traditional grammar, the pronouns “he” and “his” had two meanings. Their first meaning, which is still true to this day, is that they function as the pronoun used to refer to a male human. E.g. “He is a great guy,” “It is his work.” In their second usage, they functioned as the generic pronouns to refer to humans of either sex. So in constructions where reference is made to both males and females, it was usual to use “he” or “his.” For example: “Everyone should bring HIS books to school today.” Feminists objected to this usage for several years. They advocated replacing the generic “he” and “his” with “they” and “their.” This was initially met with resistance from (male) grammarians. 

Today, it is acceptable to write, “Everybody should bring THEIR books.” This can sometimes lead to awkward constructions, such as: “Anyone who thinks THEY can sing should raise THEIR hands.” Here, we have a disruption of subject-verb agreement. People who are uncomfortable with this either use the clumsy “his or her” or completely change the sentence structure to something like “people who think they can sing….”

8.  “The expression ‘at about’ is vague and should be avoided.” Old grammarians insisted that the preposition “at” expressed exactness in position, direction, or point in time and that “about” expressed imprecision in position, direction, or point in time and therefore that the expression “at about 10 p.m.” was redundant, even self-contradictory. I agree. 

However, the phrase has endured fierce criticism since the eighteenth century and has now been admitted into the pantheon of English idioms. This supports William Lewis Safire’s argument that, “In the long run, usage calls the shots.” Similar expressions to “at about” include “close proximity,” “aid and abet,” “large fortune.”  These are now fixed phrases that are used for emphasis, and it seems churlish to resist them.

9. “Say ‘It’s I,’ not ‘it’s me’.” For many years, grammarians objected to the expression “it’s me.” They said the correct form of that expression should be “it’s I.” As Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut wrote, “The verb ‘be’ is a linking verb, and the pronoun following it is not an object but a complement that refers back to the subject.” Following this rule, grammarians objected to expressions like “This is me” (they said it should be “This is I”), “This is him” (they said it should be “This is he”). However, in contemporary English, almost no one says “It’s I,” or “This is I,” or “This is he.” These expressions now sound stilted and unnatural.

Many grammarians have relaxed their objections to “it’s me” and “this is him.” The same fate awaits the expression “between you and I” (which should correctly be “between you and me”), etc. Popular usage is subverting many time-honored prescriptive rules.

10. “Say ‘If I were,’ not ‘if I was’.” There is still a fierce battle among grammarians about the appropriateness of these phrases. In grammar, “if I were” is referred to as being in the “subjunctive mood.” The subjective verb represents the form of a verb used to represent an act or a state that has not happened and has no likelihood of happening but that has nevertheless been imagined. For instance, when Beyonce sang “If I were a boy,” she clearly implied that she was actually not a boy nor could she be one, but imagined herself as one nonetheless. Semantic purists insist that on occasions such as this, “if I were” is the only acceptable expression.

But the subjunctive verb, which was prevalent in Middle English (i.e. from about 1100 to 1450), is now obsolete. It’s only in the expression “if I were” that it has endured in modern English. Increasingly, however, people, especially young people in both Britain and America, are replacing “if I were” with “if I was,” although “if I was” used to be considered uneducated English. (For recent notable examples of the use of “if I was” in popular hit songs, refer to Far East Movement’s “If I was you” and Liza Minnelli’s “If there was love”). It is inevitable that “if I were” will ultimately die and be replaced with “If I was.” But, for now, my advice is this: use “if I were” in formal contexts and “if I was” in informal contexts.

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1 comment

  1. It buffles me whenever I have read, enlightened or taught about new developments of grammar. As we were taught, one of the characteristics of English language is dynamism. But it is irksome that our primary and secondary school teachers are not up-to-date. They always stick and teach the old grammar rules they learned during their school days. Moreover, they don't read mordern books of language changes, yet, they mark students' scripts and fail the students who happened to learn very much on the subject matter with alacrity and extensive research. The truth is I sat for West African Exmination two times but failed. And I believed I wrote correct answers to the questions asked. Please, Prof. I ask you to write on this issue of sticking to old obnoxious grammatical rules by African teachers in general. Thank you!


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