You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

You can't swat them fast enough

The Baltimore Sun

Back in September, I invited readers to contribute the most egregious “rules” of grammar they had been taught.

“Never use the passive voice” came in almost immediately. God above, you cannot write in English without using passive constructions. Try it. I dare you. Geoffrey Pullum, at the end of an extensive article on the passive in English, points out that George Orwell and E.B. White, despite their disdain for the passive voice, “have a remarkably high frequency of passives in their work: more than 20 percent of their clauses with transitive verbs are cast in the passive, a distinctly higher frequency than you find in most of the prose written by normal people who don't spend their time pontificating hypocritically about the alleged evil of the passive.”

Beyond that, you can find dumbass advice from poseurs who do not even know what the passive voice is.

Just the other day, a parent wrote to say that a teacher had warned their child not to use terminal prepositions and had taken off points in homework for a split infinitive. So the hoary superstitions continue to haunt the classroom.

There was also a gentleman who wrote to say that not only is the default masculine still perfectly fine, he is teaching it to impressionable young people in his charge.

And at newspapers, the “split-verb rule,” the dumbest rule in the Associated Press Stylebook, continues to hold sway: “Someone in a position of power at the newspaper company where I work must have decreed long ago that adverbs must never get between a verb and any modals accompanying it. This leads to such beauties as ‘constant smartphone use adversely may affect a teen’s ability to learn.’ (Seen on a page this very afternoon! Sigh.)”

Another reader provided an account of a bogus grammar rule that “my father insisted upon many years ago when I was about 14 years old (I’m now 42). ‘Quotation marks ALWAYS go outside of punctuation marks at the end of a sentence,’ he told me. My father is a knowledgeable person, but sometimes he wades into waters that are not his forte. He was not (and is not) an avid reader, but I was, and I was positive his ‘rule’ was wrong. ‘That’s not true,’ I told him. ‘You can have a question mark or an exclamation point after quotation marks at the end of a sentence.’ He assured me that I was wrong, and that his ‘rule’ applied in all circumstances. I promptly found a book, and flipped through it until I found an example to show him. Being the stubborn person that he is, he said that just because it showed up in a novel didn’t mean that it was correct. We eventually went to the library together and looked at a style and grammar guide, where I found a page explaining that my way of thinking was correct, and that he was wrong. At that point he reluctantly conceded that I MAY be right; although I think to this day he’s still not convinced that he wasn’t right all along.”

Here we have an insight into the psychology of rule-following. The rule, however implausibly, must have no exceptions, and evidence against it does not count. This reaction also manifests itself in the just-because-lots-of-people-do-that-doesn’t-make-it-right response.

In addition to the long-exploded zombie rules, one also comes across idiosyncratic crotchets that teachers turn into dicta, as in this example:

“I had a Prose Writing professor at Framingham State College in Massachusetts that would hand an essay back ungraded if we started any sentence with the word ‘This.’ I can't remember her saying it was grammatically incorrect, but I do remember her telling us it was lazy writing. I haven't started a sentence with ‘This’ in 25 years, so whatever the reason was, it certainly stuck.”

I have also seen reports of teachers who insist that students should not begin a sentence with it, because pronouns must follow, not precede, their antecedents. (I wonder how such a teacher would tell students, “It’s raining.”)

It is probably for the best that most pedagogical instruction merely washes off impervious surfaces. Children and teens speak and write like their peers; colleagues write like one another. If enough people break a rule over a sufficient span of time, it ceases to be a rule, and fashions in vocabulary and usage alter as regularly as fashions in clothing. Still, some people do get their sense of the language warped by bad instruction.

One would like to see teachers and editors accepting evidence and informed authority, rather than parroting moribund dogma or converting odd personal preferences into ukases.

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