English grammar myths

OK, so I might go a little overboard with my grammar Nazism sometimes (which I guess can be seen in a lot of my “annoyances” posts).

However, the only thing worse than a pedant is an incorrect pedant – a stickler to the rules that is not aware of the correct rules themselves.

English is a constantly evolving language, as you so often hear, so rules that were once considered solid can be eroded over time – for example, the hyphenation and/or capitalization of words like E-mail (or if you want to go much further back, good-bye). Nowadays it is perfectly acceptable to see email and goodbye.

However, there are some ‘rules’ that have permeated into the English language which simply have no basis in fact. Here are my top three:

1. “Irregardless” is not a word.
As much as it pains me to admit it, this hideous travesty of a word is actually included in most editions of most English dictionaries, in the ‘non-standard’ section. This, for all intents and purposes, makes it a word.

However, this does not mean that you should ever use it. “Regardless” is fine by itself – there is simply no need to add the ‘ir-‘ to the beginning. I assume this started because people wanted to combine the words “regardless” and “irrespective”, and thus the bastard son “irregardless” was born.

Similarly, words such as “bootylicious” are also in the non-standard section of some dictionaries, but this doesn’t mean that they’re acceptable to use… in polite company, anyway!

2. You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.
I always find myself trying to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition wherever possible, but I recently found out that you don’t necessarily have to.

Again, this doesn’t mean that you have free license to add prepositions to sentences that already make sense. “That’s what I’m talking about” is fine (you simply can’t rephrase that to avoid the preposition being at the end and have the sentence come out sounding natural – “that is about which I am talking” just sounds silly). However, saying “That’s where it’s at” is incorrect, because you can remove the preposition from the end and still have a sentence that makes perfect sense: “That’s where it is”. Of course, both these sentences have a basis in slang, which makes it harder to apply rules to them anyway.

The rule shouldn’t be “don’t end a sentence with a preposition”, but more like “don’t use unnecessary prepositions”!

3. It’s incorrect to split your infinitives.
For those of you unaware of what a split infinitive is, the infinitive is the form of any verb which is prefaced with the word “to”. For example, “to play”, “to love”, “to see”, etc.

To split an infinitive is to put a word inbetween the “to” and the verb – the most famous split infinitive in history is probably the tagline to Star Trek – “To boldly go where no man has gone before”.

The reason grammarians often tell people not to split their infinitives goes all the way back to good old Latin and Ancient Greek – the founding languages of much of the English language. In Latin and Greek, infinitives are one word: “to play” in Latin is ludere, “to love” is amare, “to see” is videre.

Thus the split infinitive rule is a throwback to English’s roots – but English splits the infinitive anyway, by dividing it into two words. However, it is still considered a single part of speech, and is an issue that will no doubt continue to divide anal retentives for centuries.

English being English, there are some situations where refusing to split the infinitive will actually change the meaning of a sentence. For example, “I told my sister to quickly get off the bus” means that my sister should get off the bus quickly; but “I told my sister quickly to get off the bus” coupld imply that I spoke rapidly, or my telling her was a fast reaction to a previous event.

Personally, I always try to avoid splitting infinitives wherever possible – to me it just sounds inherently wrong – but I don’t correct others when they do… because it just isn’t a hard and fast rule.