Grammar Myths

Heil Spelcheck 


Nobody likes the grammar police. There’s a joke about two women sitting on a plane. One of them, a Texan, turns to the other and asks, “Where are you all from?”  The woman looks at her and answers disdainfully, “I’m from a place where people don’t end sentences with prepositions.” The Texan smiles and says, “Oh. Well then, where are you all from, Bitch?” Who doesn’t side with the Texan?

English teachers and their ilk are concerned with the rules of formal, written English, which few of us follow all the time.  For example, in formal English only a subject pronoun (I , he , she, we, they) can follow any form of the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were, etc.) If I knock on the door and hear my wife ask, “Who’s there?” I answer, “It’s me.” If I answered, “It is I,” my wife probably wouldn’t open the door.

Don’t believe everything you were taught in school. Here are three common grammar myths:


  1. You must never split an infinitive. The infinitive is the basic form of the verb: to run, to write, to become. Splitting the infinitive means putting any words between the to and the verb: to swiftly run, to carefully write, to quickly become. Splitting the infinitive sounds natural to most people, and it should. The notion that infinitives should never be split comes from the influence of Latin grammar (in Latin, the infinitive is one word and can’t be split), but no contemporary English-language authority endorses the total ban. If fact, not splitting the infinitive and preserving the intended meaning is sometimes impossible. She asked me to kindly stop splitting my infinitives. Putting kindly anywhere else in the sentence either changes the meaning or makes it ambiguous. Splitting the infinitive with too many words is awkward and should be avoided: We wanted to quickly, forcefully, and with good arguments ban smoking in the workplace.
  2. You must never begin a sentence with and, but, or because. I suspect that this mythical rule comes from elementary school teachers who are concerned with style. A child might tend to begin every sentence with and or but. Beginning sentences with because might result in incomplete sentences. But you can begin sentences with and, but, or because. Because beginning sentences with these words is not an error, don’t worry about it. Don’t, however, overdo it.
  3. You must ever end a sentence with a preposition. This superstition also comes from Latin grammar and often does violence to normal English word order. Consider these examples:


  1. What did you wrap the presents in?
  2. This is what I wanted to talk to you about


Here are stuffy-sounding revisions without prepositions at the end:


  1. In what did you wrap the presents?
  2. This is the topic about which I wanted to talk to you.

Prefer a sentence with a preposition at the end to an awkward alternative. Ending too many sentences with prepositions makes for bad writing, but remember Winston Churchill’s famous reaction to the rule: “This is the sort of English up with which I cannot put.” 

Note: ending sentences with at as in Where is she at? is definitely a grammatical error. The at has nowhere else to go. She is at where??


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