Writer’s Corner: Ungrammatical

The Evolution of the Book mural at the Library of Congress (John White Alexander, c. 1896)
The Evolution of the Book mural at the Library of Congress (John White Alexander, c. 1896)

The last few years have been a boon for grammar sticklers. Surprise bestsellers like Eats, Shoots & Leaves tried valiantly to stem the ever-growing tide of language informality in Western culture.

But writers are a rebellious lot. And while they appreciate the keeping up of standards—if you live by the word, one can get a mite protective about their being abused—they also don’t like being told what they can’t do. In other words, if the muse demands that a sentence begin with “and,” then so be it.

For that kind of writer, Steven Pinker provides herewith a helpful list of 10 grammar rules (he thinks) it’s perfectly okay to ignore. A few selections:

  • Prepositions at the end of a sentence: “There is nothing, repeat nothing, wrong with “Who are you looking at?” or “The better to see you with” or “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” or “It’s you she’s thinking of”.
  • Split infinitives: “Most mythical usage rules are merely harmless. The prohibition of split infinitives (as in “Are you sure you want to permanently delete all the items and subfolders in the ‘Deleted Items’ folder?”) and the even more sweeping prohibition of “split verbs” (as in “I will always love you” and “I would never have guessed”) is downright pernicious.”
  • Who and whom: “The best advice to writers is to calibrate their use of “whom” to the complexity of the construction and the degree of formality they desire. If William Safire, who wrote the New York Times‘ “On Language” column and coined the term “language maven” in reference to himself, could write, “Let tomorrow’s people decide who they want to be president,” so can you.”

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