5 Things You Learned Wrong in English Class

Many of the so-called rules of grammar you learned in school aren’t about grammar, and aren’t even rules at all.

A snooty professor in black robe, mortar board, and pince nez glasses points at you with disdain and disappointment

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In school, the subjects of reading, composition, grammar, and usage are all bundled together under the umbrella of “English class.” And in that class, sometimes the line between “teaching grammar” and “teaching good writing” isn’t always clear, so we’re left with a set of “rules” that we try to apply to our writing without necessarily understanding whether any particular “rule” is a matter of good and bad or right and wrong. Sometimes it isn’t even clear to the English teachers.

If you’ve ever tried to improve your writing, you’ve probably been told the following five “rules” yourself. But they aren’t rules at all. In fact, you can find examples of each of these “rules” being broken in the works of any great writer of the English language.

Don’t End a Sentence with a Preposition

Once upon a time, the word grammar (tracing to the Greek grammatike [tekhne] “[the art] of letters”) referred to Latin and no other language. Why Latin? For a long time, it was the language of both the Church and academia, but it also was not the primary language of anyone on the planet. No one spoke Latin at home. It had to be learned, and so resources to teach it needed to be created. Thus the first Latin grammars were written.

But after the printing press created a market for reading and writing in England, academics (and book merchants, who stood to make a profit) realized that a way to study, codify, teach, and standardize the English language was needed — they required an English grammar. They didn’t start from scratch, though; they took what they already had (a Latin grammar) and laid English over it. Sometimes it had to be shoehorned in, which brings us to prepositions.

In Latin grammar, the preposition was so called because of where in a sentence it needed to be placed. In Latin, word order in a sentence isn’t as important as it is in English. Latin prepositions, though, do have to be placed before their objects, thus pre- (“before”) position. A Latin sentence cannot end with a preposition.

But English isn’t Latin, and that rule doesn’t apply. Some still argue that a preposition shouldn’t end a sentence because, etymologically, preposition means “position before” — a great example of the etymological fallacy. They’re wrong. It just means that, though English prepositions do the same thing as Latin prepositions, the label preposition is a misnomer in English.

You can find these “stranded prepositions” in the work of any great writer of English you can think of.

Don’t Split Infinitives

The “rule” against splitting an infinitive is another case of English not being Latin. To make sense of it, you need to remember what an infinitive is: In short, it’s an unconjugated verb. English infinitives start with the word to, as in to discombobulate, to overexplain, and that to make I used a couple sentences back. In Latin, though, an infinitive is a single word, which means it can’t be split. But because English infinitives are two words, sometimes a third word — usually an adverb — can slip in between them. That’s a split infinitive.

“If it can’t be done in Latin, it shouldn’t be done in English” is as ridiculous as it sounds. Latin is not the prestige language it once was, so this “rule” is, thankfully, not touted as often as it once was, and you’re free to boldly split infinitives whenever it improves a sentence.

Don’t Begin a Sentence with Hopefully

This one has nothing to do with Latin. It’s a case of language change, and the people fighting against a sentence-starting hopefully are fighting against a change that is already here.

Take a sentence like “She cast her ballot hopefully.” Here, hopefully means “with hope” or “with a desire for a certain expectation.” This was the word’s original meaning; some snoots believe it should be the only meaning.

But take a sentence like “Hopefully, her candidate will win.” If nothing sounds amiss here, you’re in the right, but notice how the meaning of hopefully has changed to “it is hoped that.” This second meaning has become as common, if not more common, than the original. Hopefully, you understand that you’re free to use it.

Ain’t Ain’t a Word

By any definition of word, ain’t is a word. Whether you should use it is a matter of style, not of definition. It’s true that standard written English — the “good writing style and form” that is taught in school — shuns ain’t. In academic, technical, legal, and professional writing — basically anything you might consider “serious writing” — you should avoid it. But in your everyday speech or texting or journal entries, it’s certainly available to you.

Ain’t came into existence the way all of the other contracted forms of not to be did. Consider how common and acceptable are the phrases “he/she isn’t” and “you/they/we aren’t.” Is plus not equals isn’t, and are plus not equals aren’t. But what about “I am not”? Following the same pattern, we ought to see am plus not equaling amn’t.

And we did, several centuries ago. But amn’t is hard to say, so it shifted to become ain’t.

Not to pick nits, but this means that ain’t, strictly speaking, should be paired only with the pronoun I. But that ain’t how it’s used these days, is it? And English is democratic, so use it how you will. (Just keep it off your résumé, all right?)

Avoid the Passive Voice

The proscription against the passive voice appears in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and it has been a bane for writers for more than a century. To be fair, it wasn’t strictly a prohibition — “Use the active voice” was the recommendation — and it appeared in a section of this well-known little guidebook that was about writing well, not writing grammatically. And the text even says that “the rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

But among some critics and English teachers, this “rule” hardened to something close to stone.

There is a lot of confusion about what exactly the passive voice is, too. In short, it’s when the subject of a sentence is the one being acted upon rather than the one doing the action. “The flamingo serenaded the penguin” is in active voice; “The penguin was serenaded by the flamingo” is passive. The appearance of by right after the verb is a dead giveaway, but sometimes it is omitted — for various reasons. “The penguin was serenaded” is still passive, even if we don’t know who or what did the serenading.

Passive voice is used by good writers everywhere. It’s a useful tool for when they want to keep certain information from readers. Mystery writers in particular would have a tough time without it: “He was murdered” is in the passive voice, and opening a mystery novel with the active “The butler killed him” isn’t great for building suspense.

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  1. There’s a lot to think about here, and hopefully my English teacher Mom (from above) is proud of my online comments on this site both grammatically, and in content. My brain might have tuned-out algebra, but loved English and creative writing. Ironically, for years now, numbers have fascinated me.

    Some of these listed I have to think about more in terms of using them, or not. I’m occasionally guilty of sentences that are too long, yet aren’t run-on sentences either. If I’ve just used the word ‘too’ in a previous sentence, but need to use it again, I’ll use ‘also’ instead.

    Ain’t is a word I used in the Mary Halleren/Women in the Military feature last month. as in “Ain’t that the truth.” Even though that seems like a question, and should end with a question mark, it’s actually a statement. One of disgust. I rarely ever use it other than to convey the former, or shock value as needed.

    Ain’t can also be used to convey isn’t when the the two syllable word just won’t work (say) in song lyrics. “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King is a good example. Other times you have products where the word sounds right, but is spelled wrong on the box for attention getting purposes. Usually aimed at children, that still ain’t right.


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