Five Grammar Rules (for You to Poop on)

Ah, there can be no more promising start to an article than a reference to the Insult Comic Dog.  This blog is both hilarious and timely!

Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog“Joanna has a great grasp of current pop culture…FOR ME TO etc. etc.”

Anyway, to business.

If there’s one thing my years as an SAT/ACT grammar tutor taught me, it’s that the English language has a lot of rules.  If there’s a second thing it taught me, it’s that I knew precisely none of them.  Thanks to a nifty phenomenon called Universal Grammar, I had been able to understand and use proper English without ever explicitly learning how.  Consequently, my first day teaching was spent alternately mumbling: “So that’s what a participle is!” and refusing repeated requests for refunds.

Violent studentKid, if your parents are rich enough to pay for a private tutor, they’re rich enough to pay me to fart around on grammar.com for forty-five minutes.

I know English grammar inside and out now, of course.  Four years spent drilling kids in preparation for a bullsh*t standardized test will do that to a person.  But as I picked up the rules, I happened to pick up something else: the realization that some of what we’re taught in English class is absolute crap that can and should be ignored.  For example…

1. “Don’t end a sentence in a preposition.”
We can blame Latin for this one.  Once upon a time, English had a perfectly functional native grammar that allowed speakers to use terminal prepositions with impunity.  Then a bunch of jumped-up Classicists got a hold of it, furrowed their brows and declared: “Nah, bruh.  Latin.

Roman bath houseYou love the Classical period so much, why don’t you, uh…do whatever the hell it is they’re doing in this picture? (from english-heritage.org.uk)

But Latin is not English and never will be.  For starters, English is a Germanic language, not a Latin/Romance one.  Furthermore, the practice of grafting Latin rules onto an English framework was based in the misguided belief that Latin was pure–at least, purer than whatever mouth-farts the Anglo-Saxons had been lobbing at each other.  You can see why that’s an arbitrary and chauvinistic justification.

2. “Don’t split your infinitives.”

Benedict Cumberbatch, "Don't split your infinitives."Darling, I love you, but I will throw down over this one. (from uproxx.com)

This one also comes to us courtesy of the Classicists, who never met a Latin rule they wouldn’t take to bed and press against their clammy loins.  The most famous example of a split infinitive occurs in the opening narration of Star Trek: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

“Actually,” the fussy prescriptive grammarian pipes up, “it should be: ‘Boldly to go,’ or ‘To go boldly!'”  To which I respond: “Boldly go on this!” while extending my middle finger.  Everybody laughs and high-fives me.  I am finally popular.

3. “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.”
A wise man once asked: “Conjunction-junction, what’s your function?”  The answer, apparently, is “Not starting a sentence, and anyone who tries to use me that way will die unloved.”

Conjuction, What's Your Function?Like this man did.

Except loads of people use conjunctions that way.  Like, all the time.  Even respected authors will pop a but, or, yet, for, and, nor, or so on the front of a sentence.  They’ve been doing it for years, and so far the world hasn’t ended. 

So who cares?  Do you?  If so, why?  Might I suggest you read up on the situation in the Middle East and get your priorities in line?

4. “Use the subjunctive.”
This one may require a little explanation, since the subjunctive case is dying out even now.  A subjunctive verb is used to indicate that something is hypothetical, wishful, or contrary-to-fact.  Observe the following sentences:

  • “I wish I were smarter.”
  • “You cannot lick my withered arm, no matter how enticing it be.”
  • “Furthermore, I must ask that your daughter stop juggling that lit phosphorous.”

Lit phosphorous“I were,” “it be,” “your daughter stop”: what kind of weird-ass grammar is that?  The answer: subjunctive weird-ass grammar.

If those examples sound strange to your ear, it’s because many writers no longer use the subjunctive, opting instead to maintain the simple indicative.  As in:

  • “I wish I was smarter.”
  • “You cannot lick my withered arm, no matter how enticing it is.”
  • “Furthermore, I must ask that your daughter–yikes, too late.  Better find her an opera house to haunt.”

You may as well use the indicative too.  Don’t get me wrong: I actually like the subjunctive.  But we don’t want to be on the wrong side of grammatical history here.

5. “Use adverbs.”
I’m courting controversy, I know, so let me state this clearly for the record: I am not suggesting we all stop using adverbs.  At best, swapping adverbs for adjectives makes you sound kind of old-timey, as in: “That twister was powerful strong!” or “The knight was freakish big and freakish quick.”  At worst, it will earn you the primmest beat-down imaginable from prescriptive grammarians from all corners of society.

But let’s think about adverbs from a practical perspective: how useful are they?  Is there anything grammatically confusing about the sentences “My grandma drives so slow” and “They gave me these punji sticks free”?  It’s obvious that slow is meant to describe how Grandma drives and that free is meant to describe how they gave you the sticks.  You’ve conveyed information in a perfectly adequate, perfectly comprehensible way, without having to resort to an adverbial construction.

There are those who think adverbs are destined to disappear.  I’m sure we’ll all be dead and gone by that point.  Still, perhaps we should use what time we have left to bid a tender goodbye to our friend, the -ly ending.

CoffinThough we’ll still have the adjective “deadly!”

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