Harvard Linguist Debunks 10 Grammar Myths Learned in Schools

Harvard Linguist Debunks 10 Grammar Myths Learned in Schools

Photo Credit: Steven Pinker photo by Karl LeClair.

What constitutes good writing, and why is so much writing so bad today? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Or, maybe it's our school system that is to blame for the rampant corruption of the language?

In Elementary-school, teachers endeavor to ingrain in their students a combination of formal writing styles and suggested do's and don'ts from popular grammar rule books. Although well intentioned, those recycled do's and don'ts from popular grammar guides may be a problem because they often aren't actually based on rules of the English language.

Steven Pinker in his eminently practical 2014 book "The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century," uses extensive research to determine what really constitutes good writing. He strips popular grammar guides of the 20th century of their sanctity and instead delves into the evolution of English and how it was constructed and used for centuries to determine what is correct.

The Harvard experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist explores some of the most common myths today and the mistakes they produce in his book, which has been hailed as a modern version of Strunk and White's classic “The Elements of Style.” Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” is based on linguistics and updated for the 21st century.

Here are popular grammar "rules" you probably learnt in school that Pinker says may be muddling your writing.


Steven Pinker speaking.jpg

Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist, Steven Pinker visits with Boise State Honors College students on Oct. 4 in Driscoll Hall.


1. "You can't begin a sentence with a conjunction."


Elementary-school students are told by their teachers that it is incorrect to begin a sentence with a conjunction (and, because, but, or, so, also). That is understandable because it helps keep students from writing in fragments. However, Pinker says, that is advice that adults don't need to follow.

You are free to start a sentence with a conjunction, writes Pinker, only make sure to avoid writing an ugly "megasentence" full of connected independent clauses.


2. "All subjects preceding a gerund need to take the possessive form."


In his acclaimed 1926 book “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” H.W. Fowler coined the phrase "fused participle" to denote gerunds with unmarked subjects.

According to Fowler, in She approved of Sheila taking the job, Sheila and taking have become a horrid fused participle, and the only correct form is She approved of Sheila's taking the job.

Pinker argues that the gerunds with unmarked subject format preceded the other form and are grammatically acceptable but not always the best choice in terms of clarity and style.

There are also times when the "rule" by Fowler results in a poor sentence like I was annoyed by the people behind me in line's being served first. Therefore, the “rule” should not be seen as restrictive, writes Pinker.


3. "Like cannot be followed by a clause or be used to introduce examples."


Many writers and grammarians from the past century and even today say that “like” is a preposition, not a conjunction, and it can take only a noun phrase object, as in crazy like a fox. It is incorrect to say, as one 1954 R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company slogan said, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” The correct form in the slogan should have taken as, they argue.

Pinker disagrees. The morally righteous argument is an incorrect one, he writes. Just because like is a preposition, he says, doesn't mean it can't take a clausal complement. In fact, that form appears in 600 years of English, including in the works of master writers such as William Shakespeare and Mark Twain. Use like or as freely, Pinker says, and be aware that as is slightly more formal.

Similarly, there's a common "bogus rule" that such as, not like, is the proper way to introduce examples. Both are legitimate. In Many technical terms have become familiar, such as "cloning" and "DNA," the form like "cloning" and "DNA" is also acceptable, writes Pinker.


4. "Possessive antecedents must explicitly precede possessive adjectives."


In a verbal section of a 2002 College Board exam, students were asked to identify an error - if there was one - in the following sentence: Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured.

The correct response was "no error," but a high-school teacher argued that her was incorrect because it doesn't have a noun to refer back to.

Pinker says that he found this "rule" only in the work of a "usage maven in the 1960s" and that it is simply not based in the construction of English.

The one thing to look out for, Pinker says, is making sure the antecedent is clear. For example, it would be confusing to write Sophie's mother thinks she's fat because it's unclear who she's is referring to.


5. "You must never use a preposition to end 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," writes Pinker.

The "pseudo-rule" is entirely based on a 17th-century quibble between the English poet John Dryden and his rival poet Ben Jonson, in which Dryden mistakenly transferred a Latin rule to English. In Latin, Pinker writes, "the equivalent to a preposition is attached to the noun and cannot be separated from it."


6."A pronoun serving as the complement of be must be in the nominative case (I, he, she, we, they)."


If the above rule were true, writes Pinker, it would be incorrect to say, "Hi, it's me," since it should be, "Hi, it's I."

This is another misconception based on equating Latin rules with English rules and declaring formal English as the only acceptable version of the language, Pinker says.

In English, the accusative case (me, him, her, us, them) is the default and "can be used anywhere except in the subject of a tensed verb," Pinker adds.


7. "You must never split an infinitive."


“Most mythical usage rules are merely harmless,” Pinker writes, but the “prohibition of split infinitives ... is downright pernicious.” According to this pseudo-rule, you can't split the word to from its verb, as in to surrender. Once again, Pinker notes, this is based on incorrectly equating Latin with English.

Following this “rule,” says Pinker, results in "monstrosities" like Hobbes concluded that the only way out of the mess is for everyone permanently to surrender to an authoritarian ruler.


8. "Than and as need to precede clauses, not noun phrases."


Consider the following two sentences: Rose is smarter than him and Rose is smarter than he. Which is the correct version? According to many teaching methods the former sentence is the correct one. But, Pinker says both sentences are correct and the latter is only the formal choice.

"Like the words before and like, which we examined earlier, the words than and as are not conjunctions in the first place but prepositions that take a clause as a complement," he writes. "The only question is whether they may also take a noun phrase as a complement. Several centuries of great writers ... have voted with their pens, and the answer is yes."


9."That and which cannot be interchangeably used before clauses."


The general “rule” is that nonrestrictive clauses (those set off by commas, dashes, or parentheses) must be introduced by which and restrictive clauses (those that are essential to the sentence) must be introduced by that.

Pinker agrees that in most cases it is good to follow this construction, but rather than being a rule of grammar it is just another invention from H.W. Fowler's “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.”


10. "New words and usages degrade the language."


While many people scoff at new additions to the dictionary, Pinker welcomes it. He says languages are living things. “Neologisms also replenish the lexical richness of a language, compensating for the unavoidable loss of words and erosion of senses,” he writes. “Much of the joy of writing comes from shopping from the hundreds of thousands of words that English makes available, and it's good to remember that each of them was a neologism in its day.”


See Also: 30 Obnoxious Phrases to Expunge from Your Writing.