Glorious, glorious grammar

My kids call me “the grammar Nazi.” Yet I know that although grammar matters, such hoary rules as “never split infinitives” and “never end a sentence with a preposition” can and should be broken with impunity, because sometimes that’s the best way to express your meaning. Now along comes friend Carmen Acevedo Butcher and puts the whole glorious mess of grammar in a wonderfully whimsical framework with this meditation. Thanks Carmen!


Actually, this column is NOT about s’mores, and I’m not going to apologize about that because who would read a column titled “Grammar”? Well, likely Danielle Buckley would, but still.

Anyway, grammar is as delicious to me as s’mores, and as messy and as community-nourishing (pun intended).

For some reason everyone has now forgotten, grammar has become a punitive class. I mean that ever since Robert Lowth published a very stern and omniscient grammar book in 1762, grammar teachers (and their obedient students) have been following its dictates blindly.

Already, this column will be making grammar-minders nervous and furious (future progressive tense used to indicate irony). Their minds are sharpening arguments: “But rules are important!” “I learned when I was in Mrs. Periwinkle’s grammar class in 19-aught-8 that you can NEVER split an infinitive!” “Only an uncivilized person ends sentences with prepositions!”

Well. Rules are important, but communication is more important. Who says we can’t split infinitives? Who decreed that we can’t end sentences with prepositions? If doing so helps us communicate better, why can’t we split those infinitives and find prepositions to end sentences with?

Is “being correct” the same as communicating?

Isn’t communicating that glorious process that hungers for, yes, both talking and listening? And also, shouldn’t a grammar class invite students to question why there are so many curious, seemingly illogical “rules” in English? And isn’t it easier to teach a rule as don’t-question-it-it’s-a-grammar-law than to explore a linguistic conundrum with students? (For example, why is the plural of “ox” not “oxes”? One “fox” turns into two “foxes,” while “one “ox” turns into two “oxen”?)

Finish the article here.

One response to “Glorious, glorious grammar

  1. On split infinitives, there are few articles better than that in Fowler’s (1st or 2nd edition only, please). For a taste, I point you to:

    On ending sentences with prepositions:

    Here, the problem is one of proper identification of words. What are commonly called “prepositions” in these supposed errors are instead separable particles of phrasal verbs. Here, you can do a web or Amazon search on “phrasal verbs,” but just to give you a taste, consider the changes of meaning between:
    put up
    put up with
    (& the famous phrase “up with which I will not put.”)

    Very different meanings conditioned by verbal particles that also have cognate prepositions.

    Grammar is wonderfully weird. And language is broken.

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