Three Dubious Rules of English Usage for Writers to Ignore

I generally admire William Safire’s views on language and the way he uses “fumblerules” to illustrate his points, but occasionally disagree with him. He considers that split infinitives, prepositions at the end of a sentence, and conjunctions to start a sentence always represent poor usage. I’m offering three counter-rules: Be willing to split an infinitive if necessary to really communicate. Prepositions are good to end a sentence with. And you can start one with a conjunction.

Scholars and authors of the seventeenth century, John Dryden for instance, found the Anglo-Saxon background of English somehow uncouth and tried to remake formal written English in the image of the more elegant Latin. In English, all infinitives begin with the preposition “to,” but in Latin (and every other European language I know anything about) they are a single word. Because it is impossible to split an infinitive in Latin, these scholars decreed it bad form to split one in English.

I usually avoid splitting infinitives, but not when I have to choose between violating a rule that tries to make English what it’s not and writing clear and unambiguous prose. If sense demands it, I’ll split the infinitive every time.

Take, for example, the sentence, “He actually intended to help people.” “Actually” modifies “intended,” but what if we want it to modify “help?” He intended actually to help people? He intended to help actually people? He intended to help people actually? Please. “He intended to actually help people” sounds much less stilted. Good writing should sound natural in spoken English.

I never took Latin, but I guess it’s probably impossible to end a Latin sentence with a preposition, too. English certainly borrows a lot of words from Latin, but not its basic grammatical structure. English grammar more nearly resembles German, with its separable prefixes that must often be moved to the end of a sentence.

Winston Churchill wrote a sentence with a preposition at the end of it. When a copy editor objected, he replied, “This is an arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.” “Put up with” is a linguistic unit. You can’t change the order of those words without producing stilted English.

It’s hard to deny that prepositions come naturally at the end of a sentence, that more than one can gather there, and that their meaning can be clear. I love a question attributed to a young child who objected to his father’s choice of bedtime reading: “What did you bring me this book that I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?”

Safire may be right that split infinitives and prepositions at the end of a sentence lack elegance. Careful writers may prefer to recast a sentence entirely when faced with such constructions. But if coming up with a clearly written alternative becomes more trouble than it’s worth, why bother.

There. I just started a sentence with a conjunction. The King James Version of the Bible begins a lot of sentences with “and.” The same scholars who rejected split infinitives and terminal prepositions knew that Bible translation well and undoubtedly regarded it as a model of good formal English writing. So the rule about conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence must have come later.

It’s a foolish rule, really. Written English and spoken English are different. Without such markers as punctuation and capital letters, written English becomes difficult to decipher. That’s what’s wrong with run-on sentences. Our eyes beg for some way to divide all those words into meaningful units. Meanwhile, they sound just fine to the ear.

Spoken English links concepts together and defines relationships among them with conjunctions–and no regard to the length of the sentence. Our ears can make sense of any number of ideas put together with conjunctions. Our eyes simply cannot.

These days, we prize writing that sounds conversational. Formal academic prose, especially as written generations ago, seems ponderous, and we have no patience with it. A writer thinking conversationally may think of a succession of ideas and all the conjunctions needed to link them together.

Or he may conceive of a more “writerly” sentence with prepositional phrases and dependent clauses and want to link it to the next thought. What better way to break up those long strings of words into eye-friendly units than to put a period right before one of the conjunctions? It does not make a sentence fragment.  In fact, since most people find short paragraphs much easier to read online, why not start a paragraph with a conjunction, as I did here?

I freely grant that no piece of writing should overuse any of these liberties. Writers always have the option to start from scratch and recast all of the sentences that seem to require a split infinitive or a preposition at the end. They can carefully think in short units that don’t invite starting one of them with a conjunction. But on the other hand, why should a rule get in the way of making thoughts that sound good also look intelligible?

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