Why Only Some Grammar Rules Are Breakable
This post, by Dr. Joel Hoffman, originally appeared on The Huffington Post Books blog.
A misguided debate is raging over English grammar. It began when authors Patricia O’Conner and Steward Kellerman claimed in the Smithsonian that “most of what you know about grammar is wrong.” Then The Huffington Post picked it up, and after that The Guardian.
The controversy is illustrated by a disagreement over “split infinitives”: is it, or is it not, okay to say “to boldly go…,” using the word “boldly” to split the infinitive “to go”?
Having written a column on (Hebrew) grammar for the International Jerusalem Post and with a Ph.D in linguistics to my name, I feel like I have a horse in this race. And as someone who likes talking to my friends, I have another horse in the race. As an author and lover of words, I have a third horse with my name on it.
And this is my point: There are three distinct ways to look at grammar.
Who Died And Made You King?
The first, and most traditional way, is what we linguists call “prescriptive grammar,” or, more snarkily, the “who died and made you king” approach. And it’s essentially a social policy, not unlike wearing white only after Labor Day. (Or before. Or Memorial Day. You know what I mean.) People in power make up rules and expect other people to follow them: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t split an infinitive. And so on.
But Ms. O’Conner and Mr. Kellerman are misleading when they say that these are “phony rules.” They’re just like spelling: arbitrary agreements enforced by arbitrary language monarchs. There’s no good reason that the possessive “Michael’s” should have an apostrophe when the equally possessive “its” does not, for instance, but that’s the way it goes. The kings told us so. And the same is true of properly positioning prepositions and not inserting items into infinitives.
(Incidentally, the “with” in “put up with” is a particle, not a preposition, in spite of Churchill’s probably apocryphal stance that “ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.” And Ms. O’Conner and Mr. Kellerman are simply wrong when they say that “to” isn’t part of the infinitive in English.)
But Everyone’s Doing It!