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10 grammar rules you can forget
Posted: 01 October 2013 09:23 AM   [ Ignore ]
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More Grauniad stuff (sorry) though entertaining and with great examples from literature and pop culture. Marsh’s observations sounds sound to me. Here.

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Posted: 01 October 2013 07:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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OK, I’ll bite. Many of these have some historical basis which to my mind eludes impeachment. Foremost among these, I’d say, are numbers 1, 3, 5, 9, and possibly 10. Quite clearly the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition (#2) is an idiotic, pro-Latinate imposition on a language with a Germanic substrate. Also, the word “none” clearly derives from “not one” or “no one,” but by more recent usage has shifted from singular only to singular/plural depending on usage. This makes the rule outdated but not lacking entirely in merit throughout all retrospective time.

Many rules are outdated. This does not make their original proponents into dolts or idiots.

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Posted: 02 October 2013 04:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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#1 (split infinitives) has absolutely no basis in historical usage. It never has been observed by discerning writers. Ditto for #2 (preposition stranding), #5 (between/among), #7 (possessive with gerund), #8 (starting sentences with a conjunction), and #9 (singular none). I’d hesitate to call these “zombie rules,” because that implies these were once alive. They have never been observed by English as it has actually been spoken and written.

#3 (subjunctive) is a real rule of English grammar, but as the article states, the subjunctive mood is very slowly dying in English (a process that started in Old English), and in its current state is very defective. Good writers will observe the subjunctive, but the article’s advice about not worrying about it is sound for most people. And there is absolutely no need to insist on it in casual communication.

#4 (double negatives) were standard in Old and Middle English, but have long since passed out of standard English. But they survive in dialectal use. So Mick Jagger wasn’t “wrong” for using them. But they should be avoided in formal and semi-formal writing.

#6 (preposition selection) is one I’ve never encountered. I’m assuming its a Briticism. To my American ears either “bored with” or “bored of” is okay, with the latter being somewhat informal. Selection of which preposition to use is highly idiomatic, changing with dialect and over time, sometimes within a generation. One just has to keep a good ear and roll with it.

#10 (try and) has always been standard English, but is avoided in the most formal of writing.

In short, this is pretty good advice. All ten can be safely ignored by the vast majority of writers.

Of the ones the article says one should observe, the article falls down:

The advice for #1’ (who/whom) is good, as is #5’ (lay/lie). Careful writers observe the rules with these ones, although who/whom is often best ignored in informal contexts, where whom can sound stodgy.

#2’ (nonrestrictive that) is not an easy one to explain. The which/that distinction is maintained in edited prose, but ignored by everyone else. There is a historical basis for the rule, but usage patterns changed in the twentieth century, allowing the non-restrictive that. The article is wrong in saying which shouldn’t be used in restrictive contexts. While it’s more often used for non-restrictive contexts, about 25% of its uses are restrictive, even in edited prose. The which/that distinction has never been observed in poetry.

#3’ (compare to/with) is oversimplified. The distinction is maintained in the active voice, but breaks down with the past participle, when either preposition can be used for either situation.

#4’ (collective noun agreement) is advice I’ve never encountered. I’m pretty sure that is not the way it breaks down. Actual usage is highly idiomatic, with Americans tending to use the singular and British the plural, with plenty of exceptions on either side. There’s no simple way to state a rule. You just have to listen and use the one appropriate for the audience.

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Posted: 03 October 2013 12:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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#3 (subjunctive) is a real rule of English grammar, but as the article states, the subjunctive mood is very slowly dying in English (a process that started in Old English), and in its current state is very defective. Good writers will observe the subjunctive, but the article’s advice about not worrying about it is sound for most people. And there is absolutely no need to insist on it in casual communication.

Though I do think the distinction between may and might is worth preserving. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read in statements a newspaper along the lines of ‘Dozens of people may have been killed’, only to find out that in fact they weren’t, but they might have been, had things panned out differently. Yes, ultimately one can figure out what is meant, but I think we here all agree that grammar which starts by misleading the reader and requires a follow-up to put him or her back on track isn’t good grammar.

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Posted: 03 October 2013 03:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Syntinen Laulu - 03 October 2013 12:48 AM

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read in statements a newspaper along the lines of ‘Dozens of people may have been killed’, only to find out that in fact they weren’t, but they might have been, had things panned out differently.

I’m struggling to figure out how you could have misunderstood this.  Did you first think it was saying that they were permitted to have been killed?

Edit:  Never mind.  I’m thinking you read it as saying that it was possible that they were killed, but we don’t yet know for sure.  But then I would think I might have the same reaction to “Might have been killed.”

[ Edited: 03 October 2013 03:37 AM by Faldage ]
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Posted: 03 October 2013 04:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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"Dozens may have been killed” is in the indicative mood. We don’t know what the body count is, but the implication is that some number of people are dead.

“Dozens might have been killed” is in the subjunctive mood (technically, it’s a periphrastic construction, not a true subjunctive). It’s a hypothetical. No one has died.

The confusion is due to the decline in the subjunctive. If English had a true and working subjunctive mood, like Latin or like Old English’s forebears, then we could express this without confusion or need of additional explanation. Insisting that the may/might distinction be upheld would reduce, but not eliminate the confusion; people will still question what is meant unless additional information is supplied.

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Posted: 03 October 2013 05:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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“Dozens may have been killed” is in the indicative mood. We don’t know what the body count is, but the implication is that some number of people are dead.

“Dozens might have been killed” is in the subjunctive mood (technically, it’s a periphrastic construction, not a true subjunctive). It’s a hypothetical. No one has died.

This is the traditional grammar I grew up with and still use, but it has fallen out of current use.  I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone on radio or TV say “might have been”; “may” is used for everything.  I’m sure you can find examples of traditional use if you look, but I’ll bet they’re by codgers like me.  This is one of the linguistic changes I’m least fond of, but there’s nowt you or I can do about it.

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Posted: 03 October 2013 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I think that given might is also the past form of may, this is an accident waiting to happen…

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Posted: 03 October 2013 07:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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The may/might distinction is something I was taught in English class in grade school. Do they even teach this sort of formal English anymore?

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Posted: 03 October 2013 07:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone on radio or TV say “might have been”

A memory-jogger for you lh

“It might have been in County Down
Or in New York, in gay Paree, or even London town
No more will I go all around the word
For I have found my word in you.”

To be Frank, it’s becoming rare!

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Posted: 03 October 2013 07:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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That certainly didn’t jog any memories for me.  Is that supposed to be “word” or “world” in the last two lines? “World” would seem to make more sense, though obviously if I don’t recognize the lines I may (or might) be missing something.

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Posted: 03 October 2013 08:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Dr. Techie - 03 October 2013 07:50 AM

That certainly didn’t jog any memories for me.  Is that supposed to be “word” or “world” in the last two lines? “World” would seem to make more sense, though obviously if I don’t recognize the lines I may (or might) be missing something.

It is “world” but the first verse more demonstrates the point, if I’m understanding the discussion thus far:

Around the world I’ve searched for you
I traveled on when hope was gone to keep a rendezvous
I knew somewhere, sometime, somehow
You’d look at me and I would see the smile you’re smiling now

Or maybe that’s the verse that the posted verse was to jog out of the dark recesses of our memories. But it was just not there. It’s a Frank Sinatra song (thus the Frank in Skibs note) but I’ve never heard it.

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Posted: 03 October 2013 08:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I think it’s a pun on wor/l/d.

Lh used the word “nowt” - I thought it was purely northern English but maybe it’s spread to the States or beyond?

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Posted: 03 October 2013 08:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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ISTM (and LH, I think) that in Skib’s example, the meaning of “might” is ambiguous: does the author mean, “It might have been in County Down” (but it wasn’t, it was definitely somewhere else, and here are some other places that it might have, but didn’t, happen in) or “it might have been in County Down” (but I’m not sure: it certainly could have been somewhere else, and here are several other places that are plausible candidates).  Both seem plausible to me, but, if anything, I would lean slightly towards the latter. 

I was not taught the may/might distinction in school (my teachers were too busy peeving about the use of “can” for “may”, I guess).  However, I would instinctively guess (absent contextual clues to the contrary) that “dozens of people may have been killed” means that it is possible that they were, and that we don’t know if they were or not, and that “dozens of people might have been killed” means that they weren’t killed, but that the danger of this happening existed.  But, as a writer, I wouldn’t depend on may/might alone to make this distinction clear, and I agree that it would be nice if one could rely on that alone. 

FWIW, I was first introduced to the word “subjunctive” in a high school Spanish class (FTM, there was no talk of verbal “moods” in any English class I took).  I don’t think I heard or saw the word “subjunctive” applied to English until I began following wordorigins.org.

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Posted: 03 October 2013 02:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Iron Pyrite - 01 October 2013 07:42 PM

Also, the word “none” clearly derives from “not one” or “no one,” but by more recent usage has shifted from singular only to singular/plural depending on usage. This makes the rule outdated but not lacking entirely in merit throughout all retrospective time.

None has always been both plural and singular. Here’s an Old English example where it is genitive plural I think:

c888 K. ÆLFRED Boethius De consolatione philosophiæ. xi. §1 oððe hie næfre to nanum men ne becumaþ. oððe hi þær næfre fæstlice ne þurhƿuniaþ sƿelca sƿelce hi ær to coman.

Dave Wilton - 02 October 2013 04:00 AM

The which/that distinction is maintained in edited prose, but ignored by everyone else.

It isn’t maintained in edited prose, according to MWDEU. If we’re talking about the same thing - I’m talking about how edited prose allows both which and that in restrictive clauses but only which with non-restrictive clauses.

[ Edited: 03 October 2013 02:55 PM by gooofy ]
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Posted: 03 October 2013 04:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Below the - 10 grammar rules you can forget, I cast my eye over -Five Things People Should Worry About And More. Specifically No. 1. To who it may concern.

I was taught (back in the fifties) that who and whom, he and him etc., were governed by the preposition in the sentence. Some prepositions take on the Accusative case, while others the Dative. Yet others take on both, in which case one has to ask whether the preposition is in temporal mode or not.

To clarify, ‘to’ and ‘with’ always take on the Dative case, while ‘for’ takes on Accusative. Dative is always whom, etc., while Accusative is who.

The preposition ‘in’ takes on both Dative and Accusative depending on whether it is used in temporal mode or not. In the sentence, he went in and sat down, ‘in’ is used in temporal mode. In the sentence, he sat in the room, ‘in’ is not temporal.

Going by these grammatical rules of yesteryear, it would be ‘to whom did you give the book’? and ‘with whom are you going out tonight’?

However, this would leave “for whom the bell tolls” as incorrect. I remember our teacher being a stickler on this. He always corrected the use of ‘for’, saying “who is this for?” not ‘whom is this for”?

Unfortunately, if you substitute he and him etc. for who and whom to resolve the issue, it doesn’t help since ‘him’ takes on both Accusative and Dative cases.

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