4 Fake Grammar Rules You Don't Need to Worry About

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iStock.com/nzphotonz

There are many grammar rules that students of English must learn about in order to understand how the language works. There are some rules, however, that don’t reflect how the language works at all and are simply passed down from generation to generation just because. It’s good to be familiar with them for the same reason it’s good to know arbitrary dress code customs, which is to say, because someone might judge you for not following them. But they have little to do with logic, clarity, the facts of English, or even being a good writer.

In honor of National Grammar Day, here are four grammar rules that aren’t really rules at all.

1. Don't split infinitives.

The rule against splitting infinitives says that nothing must come between a to and its verb. It is incorrect to boldly go. One must instead arrange to go boldly, or boldly to go. But this rule has no real justification. In fact, this rule was never mentioned in any treatises on English until an 1834 anonymous article proposed it, claiming that keeping the to and the verb next to each other is what good authors did. But plenty of good authors had in fact been splitting infinitives for hundreds of years, from John Wycliffe in the 14th century to Samuel Johnson in the 18th century.

Though many writers thought this imaginary rule was unnecessary and even sometimes harmful to clarity (George Bernard Shaw said, “Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it”), it somehow made its way into a number of usage guides and stayed there. Read Tom Freeman's history of the rule here

2. Don't end a sentence with a preposition.

We are told not to end a sentence with a preposition. What is this rule for? I mean, for what is this rule? Wait, would anyone really use the second construction to ask this question? Ending a sentence with a preposition is completely natural in English and not at all wrong. The rule came about during the 17th century when scholars were deeply immersed in the study of Latin and took to emulating Latin as a model of linguistic purity. Because a preposition can’t be stranded in Latin, some thought that the same should hold for English. But English differs from Latin in countless ways, and to cling to a prohibition that forces you to swap It’s nothing to worry about for It’s nothing about which to worry does not encourage good style or clarity of expression. Don’t believe me? Ask Oxford Dictionaries.

But what about sentences like Where’s he at? or Do you want to come with? Should those be considered correct, then? No. Those are examples of non-standard grammar because they're used in non-standard dialects, not because they end with prepositions. At where is he? does not sound any better, and if the problem with come with is the ending preposition, why doesn’t come along sound just as bad? 

3. Don't use they as a singular pronoun.

The rule says that because they is a plural pronoun, it must have a plural antecedent. This means that the sentence If anyone has a problem with that, they should tell me is wrong because anyone is singular and they is plural. They should be switched to a singular pronoun, but which one? “Generic he” was the prescription in the 19th century (If anyone has a problem with that, he should tell me), but as it became clear that he was neither generic nor neutral, the suggestion was to either use the cumbersome “he or she” (If anyone has a problem with that, he or she should tell me) or to rewrite the sentence entirely (Got a problem with that? Let me know).

Sticklers have been wringing their hands about how to reconcile this rule with guidelines for nonsexist language for decades now, but the solution has been right there all along. Just use singular they. The pronouns they/them/their have been used with singular antecedents for centuries. It’s perfectly good English. It sounds completely natural. Great writers like Shakespeare and Jane Austen used it. Does anyone really think Everyone clapped his hands sounds better than Everyone clapped their hands?

Editors like John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun have been letting the singular they through for a while now and most of the time no one notices. What we have in singular they, according to linguist Geoff Pullum, is “a logically impeccable construction that expert users of the language regularly employ and experienced listeners unhesitatingly accept. I wonder what more one would need to take something to be grammatical.” 

4. Don't start a sentence with hopefully.

The ban on hopefully as a sentence adverb meant that you were only to use it to mean “in a hopeful manner.” So I waited hopefully was good, but Hopefully, the bus will get here soon was bad. Buses don’t do things in a hopeful manner! What you were supposed to say in that situation was It is hoped that the bus will get here soon.

Hopefully was being picked on rather unfairly. No one had a problem with fortunately/clearly/unbelievably/sadly/mercifully the bus will get here soon. There are plenty of other adverbs that can modify a whole sentence without causing a stir. Hopefully was singled out because it was new in the '60s, people noticed it, complained about it, and made up a reason to justify their complaints. It is still one of those gotcha words that attract the red pen, but even the AP Stylebook has given up trying to enforce the ban. 

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

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- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

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- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

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- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

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- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

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Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Sony

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- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

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Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

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- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

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- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

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Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

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What Does ‘Cabin Fever’ Mean? Plus Other Fever Words

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

By Samantha Enslen, Quick and Dirty Tips

We come to you in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. One of the symptoms of COVID-19 is a fever, and that got us thinking about the word fever and the different phrases that use it.

After a bit of noodling around, here’s what we learned.

The Origin of the Word Fever.

The word fever comes from the classical Latin febris. It’s also related to the Latin word fovēre, meaning “to heat,” and the ancient Greek τέϕρα (pronounced tephra), meaning “ash.”

Fever originally related to heat.

The first time it was printed was in an Old English herbarium—a book describing how to use herbs as medicine. The author said that people who have a “fefer” should “wyrte wel drincan on wætere”—that is, drink lots of water brewed with plants from the wort family, like spiderwort or St. John’s wort.

The Meaning of Fever Gets Extended.

By the 1300s, we see the use of the word expand. It starts to also mean a state of nervous excitement or agitation. We see phrases like “a fever of jealousy” and “a fever of the soul.” We still use that meaning today—you’ll know that if you’ve ever had “a fever for the flavor of a Pringle.” (For those of you too young to recognize that jingle, it’s from an iconic 1980s ad for those flattened, processed potato chips known as Pringles.)

Fever also paired up with various modifiers over time. These phrases referred to an intense enthusiasm that usually burned out quickly.

For example, in the 1600s, “tulip fever” broke out in the Netherlands. These bulbs began to be imported from the Ottoman Empire, and prices for them skyrocketed.

In the 1760s, when the Seven Years’ War raged between Great Britain and France, British fanatics were said to have “war-fever.”

In 1848, the discovery of gold in California sparked a “gold fever”—a mass migration of miners into California’s goldfields. By 1855, more than 300,000 people had moved into the state.

And of course, in the 1970s, many of us had the most embarrassing fever of all—disco fever. Admit it—many of you probably wore gold lame and bell-bottoms, and danced your heart out to songs like “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees and “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer.

Those were the days.

Fever Phrases: Cabin Fever, Fever Dream, Fever Pitch

Fever has also become part of some standard phrases we use.

Cabin Fever

There’s “cabin fever,” the restlessness and irritation that comes from being cooped up too long in a small space. (Perhaps needless to say, many of us are feeling that right now.) The term appeared in the American West in the early 1900s, probably because of settlers being trapped in literal cabins for weeks on end during the heavy winters that hit states like South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming.

Fever Dreams

There are also “fever dreams.” These are the bizarre, hallucinogenic dreams that can come when you have a high fever. If you’ve ever seen the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 movie Spellbound, you get a sense of what a fever dream might be like.

“Fever dreams” can also refer to any outlandish ideas. If a friend told you she’d quit her job, bought a horse, and decided to bring transportation via carriage back into fashion, you might say she was having a fever dream.

Fever Pitch

Finally, there’s the expression “fever pitch,” which refers to a state of intense excitement. In 2019, when the Washington Nationals were competing for their first-ever World Series trophy, you could say that “baseball fever” in Washington had reached a fever pitch. Or in 2016, when LeBron James brought the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals, excitement in Cleveland was definitely at a fever pitch.

Why Do You Catch a Cold, But Run a Fever?

One final topic for today. Why do you catch a cold, but run a fever?

Catching a Cold

“To catch a cold” is an idiom. It first appeared in the 16th century, and originally meant to literally become chilled by exposure to cold weather. By the late 1600s, it took on the meaning we use today: to become infected by a cold virus.

Until recently, the phrase was shorter: “to catch cold” was more common than “to catch a cold.” And there’s also a darker version of this phrase: “to catch your death of cold.” This phrase was likely a favorite of parents warning their children to dress warmly: “put on a hat if you’re going outside, or you’ll catch your death of cold!”

Running a Fever

The phrase “to run a fever” is also an idiom. It uses the word “run” in the sense meaning “to cause, or to move.” You can see a similar usage in the phrase “run amok,” meaning to move in a frenzied, out-of-control way.

In this case, one’s temperature is moving upward; thus, one “runs” a fever.

That’s our rundown on fever-related idioms. I wish everyone good health—and I am sending warm wishes that “cabin fever” isn’t hitting you too hard.

Sources

Ammer, Christine. Catch a cold, run a fever. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Boissoneault, Lorraine. There Never Was a Real Tulip Fever. Smithsonian Magazine, September 18, 2017.

Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Gold fever, Seven Years’ War (subscription required, accessed April 20, 2020).

Merriam-Webster. A Retrospect of Words From 1918 (accessed April 20, 2020).

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Fever, cabin fever (subscription required, accessed April 20, 2020).

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as What Does ‘Cabin Fever’ Mean? Plus Other ‘Fever’ Words. Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.