So I posted this on Facebook and Twitter: “I would be interested in learning the dumbest advice you were ever given on grammar and usage, particularly by an English teacher or an editor.”

Then the heavens opened.


A lot of the comments, as I expected, repeated the hoary zombie rules about not splitting infinitives, not ending sentences with prepositions, not beginning sentences with conjunctions, none always a singular, a certain amount of thrashing about over the serial comma, but — great Fowler’s ghost! — there has been some serious malpractice out there.

A sampling follows.

Item: Someone once told me not to begin a sentence with a preposition. I replied: “On that, we will have to disagree.”

JEM: Professor Arnold Zwicky commented on this one: Lovely. A combo of two famously spurious rules — don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction AND don’t end a sentence with a preposition. The “rules” are being treated as incantations, not as actual claims about language use, to be examined as well as applied.

Item: My Grade 7 English teacher “corrected” my plural possessive, saying the apostrophe should never go after the s. That was the first time I realized being a teacher was no guarantee of not being an idiot.

Item: “The subject of a sentence and the principle verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.” Strunk & White, “Elements of Style” p 29.

JEM: I would expect Professor Geoffrey Pullum, should he participate in this poll, would write that the worst possible advice on grammar and usage is to buy a copy of The Elements of Style.

Item: Instructed in junior high that all papers containing the word “like” would be rejected. We did delight in coming up with workarounds such as “in the fashion of”, “much in the way of”, “in a similar mode to”, etc.

JEM: R.J. Reynolds has a lot to answer for because of “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”

Item: Get rid of all versions of the verb “to be.”

JEM: I suspect that this one rises from an effort to avoid the wicked passive voice, typically advice betraying that the speaker cannot correctly identify passive constructions.

Item: Not me, because my father was an English teacher and raised me right, but a friend was actually rapped over the knuckles for writing “between you and me.” The teacher insisted it should be “between you and I.” (!) As Dad used to say, 50% of all doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. came in the bottom half of their class.

Item: I was told that readers wouldn’t read any word longer than eight letters or any sentence longer than 27 words. Editors. Not just one, though the parameters varied a tad. I wasted years trying to figure out why that was but, of course, it wasn’t.

Item: I had a coworker INSIST that you couldn’t start a sentence with an abbreviation. We were writing about the military and so had to spell out “Lieutenant Colonel Smith” every time it began a sentence. It was horrible.


Item: Never got dumb advice myself (except don’t split infinitives). But a college student I tutored said their hs teacher taught them each paragraph in an essay had to have the exact same number of sentences.

Item: My fourth grade English teacher for some reason made us use two adjectives for every noun in our stories. We had to decide what the two adjectives would be before we started writing.

Item: No adverbs. Ever. Creative writing teacher.

JEM: For extra credit: Take a sample of the instructor’s writing. Underline all the adverbs. Submit.

Item: When I first started teaching and believed in and taught (shudder) some of the shibboleths and crotchets, I had a class with several students from the same high school. They had been taught that a paragraph is eight sentences and to indent after every eighth sentence.

Item: 10th grade English teacher: “Write the way you speak.” He then proceeded to mark wrong every single idiom and colloquial phrase, with extremely belittling comments.

Item: Not me, but I did work with an editor who batch-deleted the word “that” from every story he edited. That was a new one for me.

Item: As God is my witness, one of my elementary school English teachers instructed us that “alot” (as in a large quantity) was a word.

Item: One editor of mine insisted that the word “kid” couldn't be used to refer to a child: “Kids are baby goats.”

JEM: I believe that all the people who observe that distinction have now gone to the Other Place.

Item: One of my elementary school teachers told us that one uses “person” for one human, “people” for more than one, and there is no word “persons.”

Item: My husband's high school English teacher made the class memorize every preposition. He had to recite them aloud. To this day, we wonder, “What was she thinking?!”

Item: Never to use the words ‘get’, ‘got’, ‘nice’ and ‘went’ in writing. Our (otherwise outstanding) year 6/5th grade teacher actually wrote them on slips of paper, set fire to them and dropped the burning fragments in the waste paper bin. Wouldn’t happen nowadays.

JEM: Yes, pedagogy with fire seems to have fallen from favor.

Item: “Put in a comma where you would take a breath.” It leads to comma splices. I teach adults to write, and I tell them to STOP BREATHING!

Item: Most of the bad advice I received started with the word “never.”

JEM: You should also be suspicious about any piece of advice on grammar and usage that contains the word always.