11 Grammar Rules That Make No Sense

istock
istock

When you first learn the rules for English grammar in elementary school, you find there are a lot of don’ts: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition; don’t begin a sentence with because. But as you become a more sophisticated writer (and reader), you realize that many of these so-called “rules” are really more like guidelines, and are better ignored.

1. DON’T SPLIT INFINITIVES.

The rule says nothing should come between the to and its verb in the infinitive, which makes “to boldly go where no one has gone before” incorrect. (According to the rule it should be “to go boldly” instead.) But the placement of the adverb is more a matter of style than grammar, and often the split sounds way better. Almost all style guides agree.

2. DON’T END A SENTENCE WITH A PREPOSITION.

It’s a good idea to remove the final preposition from a sentence like “Where is he going to?” But modern style guides see nothing wrong with a sentence like “This picture is lovely to look at.” Even “Which student did he give it to?” is considered much less stuffy and awkward than “To which student did he give it?” And certainly no one would endorse “This is a grammar rule up with which I will not put.”

3. DON’T START A SENTENCE WITH A CONJUNCTION.

For someone just learning to write, this may be a good style tip, but it is not a rule of grammar. It is perfectly fine to begin sentences with and or but. And that’s what all the major usage guides say, too.

4. DON’T USE PASSIVE VOICE.

This is another rule that has more to do with style than grammar. Sometimes you don’t know the agent of an action. How else would you phrase “I was stranded on a desert island”? “The storm stranded me on a desert island”? The passive is the much better voice choice in many situations.

5. DON’T START A SENTENCE WITH HOPEFULLY.

The argument against starting a sentence with hopefully objects that hopefully can only mean “in a hopeful manner” and that “Hopefully, the bus will get here soon” therefore implies the ridiculous assertion that the bus is making its way here in a hopeful manner. But in cases like this, hopefully is actually an adverb for the whole sentence. It’s like frankly, apparently, or certainly. “Certainly, the bus will get here soon” doesn’t mean the bus is certain, but that the attitude toward the situation of the bus coming is one of certainty. Likewise, hopefully refers to an attitude of hopefulness toward the whole situation.

6. DON’T USE OVER TO MEAN MORE THAN.

This rule states that over is only to be used for spatial position and not for numbers. You do not spend over $5 on coffee, but more than $5. Stylebooks have recently been giving up on this rule. After all, we do talk about numbers in spatial terms. If it’s OK to say a price is higher or lower, why not over $5 or under $5?

7. DON’T USE BETWEEN FOR MORE THAN TWO.

According to this rule, you should say among instead of between when there are more than two entities involved. You have to choose between soup and salad, but you choose among all the menu items. There are, however, many cases where between works fine for multiple items, as when there are multiple individual interactions implied. “The talks between the U.S., Russia, and China went well.”

8. NONE TAKES A SINGULAR VERB.

This rule states that because none comes from no one, it is singular and should therefore have singular verb agreement, as in “None of the plates was broken.” But most style guides acknowledge that that is a stylistically awkward construction and none should be allowed to have singular or plural agreement. “None of the plates were broken” is completely acceptable.

9. USE A BEFORE CONSONANTS AND AN BEFORE VOWELS.

The rule for a vs. an doesn’t depend on what letter a word begins with, but what sound. Usual begins with a vowel, but the sound it begins with is a consonant. No one should write “an usual day” or “an one horse town.”

10. DON’T USE FUN AS AN ADJECTIVE.

Fun was originally a noun. It was considered incorrect to say “that was a fun party” in the same way it would be incorrect to say “that was a noise party” when you mean “that was a noisy party.” But funny is already taken for a different meaning, and fun has slowly become acceptable to use as an adjective. Style guides have begun to admit that yes, parties can be fun.

11. SAY “IT IS I,” NOT “ME.”

This rule came about from people analyzing English as if it were Latin. But English is not Latin and “it is I” sounds so painfully formal as to be distracting. “It is me” has been the natural way to say it for hundreds of years, and is still perfectly good English.

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First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch
First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch

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Headlamp from One80Light
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Systemic vs. Systematic: How to Use Each Word Correctly

This woman systematically drinks orange juice while her creative juices are flowing.
This woman systematically drinks orange juice while her creative juices are flowing.
m-imagephotography/iStock via Getty Images

The English language is bursting with pairs of words so similar you might think they mean the same thing, even if one has an extra syllable in the middle. Some actually do mean the same thing—disorientated, for example, is a version of disoriented more commonly used in the UK, but they both describe someone who’s lost their bearings.

Others, like systemic and systematic, have different definitions. According to Dr. Paul Brians, a former Washington State University English professor and leading authority on grammar, systematic relates to an action that is done “according to some system or organized method.” If you sort your M&Ms by color and eat the blue ones last, you’re doing it systematically. Sometimes, Brians explains on his website, systematic is used when a behavior—however unintentional it may be—is so habitual that it seems to be the result of a system. If you forget to lock your front door every time you leave the house, someone might say that you have a systematic pattern of forgetfulness.

Systemic, meanwhile, describes something that happens inside a system or affects all parts of a system. It’s often used in scientific contexts, especially those that involve diseases or pesticides. If a cancer is systemic, that means it’s present throughout the body. If you’re describing how the cancer progressed, however, you could say it spread systematically from organ to organ. As Grammarist points out, systemic can also denote something that is “deeply ingrained in the system,” which helps explain why you sometimes hear it in discussions about social or political issues. When Theodore Roosevelt served as the New York City Police Commissioner, for example, his main goal was to stamp out the systemic corruption in the police department.

In short, systematic is used to describe the way a process is done, while systemic is used to describe something inside a system.

[h/t Grammarist]