Following Senseless Language Rules to Avoid Criticism

Following Senseless Language Rules to Avoid Criticism

(Adapted from my article printed on the op-ed page of the San Antonio Express-News on May 9, 2010.)

Recently, writers of letters to the editor, inspired by a “poorly written” newspaper headline, debated whether a sentence should ever end with a preposition.

The rule about ending a sentence with a preposition was made up many years ago by English teachers. They decreed that English sentences must not end in a preposition since Latin sentences never did. Actually, although we derive many of our words from Latin, our sentence structure more closely follows French.

In English, there is a great deal of difference between “Dog bites man,” and “Man bites dog.”

In French, “A dog bites a man,” is “Un chien mord un homme,” while “A man bites a dog,” is “Un homme mord un chien.” Again, word order matters.

In Latin, however, “Man bites dog,” is “Homo amordit canem,” or could be “Canem amordit homo.” The order is not crucial because the case endings determine who is the actor and who is acted upon. The Latin language does generally follow the word order of subject-verb-object, but if we jumble the words, we can still tell who does what to whom because of the case endings.

In Latin, “Dog bites man,” is “Canis amordit hominem,” or “Hominem amordit canis,” or even “Amordit canis hominem.” Once again, order is not crucial since the word endings indicate who does what to whom (nominative vs. objective cases).

Structurally, English and Latin are quite different. As an example, Latin speakers must learn the 32 endings for the adjective form of “good.” This may be one of the reasons why Latin died and no one cried.

Please don’t tell me I need more commas in the sentences above. You don’t want to tangle with me on grammar/punctuation issues. I bite.

Just kidding. I’ll be happy to give my opinion on any questions you have. You may even change my mind. I don’t want to be as rigid as my predecessors.

For centuries we English teachers have insisted that we not split an infinitive because in Latin an infinitive was one word. So what?

I wish to boldly go where no one has gone before.

In addition, they have insisted we not end a sentence with a preposition because Latin never did. Again, so what?

Winston Churchill has been credited with the quip, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is a rule up with which I will not put.” Whether or not he actually said or wrote those words cannot be proved. The sentence does, however, show how silly it can be to stick to the “rule.”

In fact, sometimes we think we have a preposition when we do not. “He was beaten up,” does not end with a preposition, but with a particle, since it cannot be inflected and has no grammatical function in this instance. If “up” were a preposition in this sentence, we would be able to answer the question “up what?” You can find “grammatical particle” as an entry in Wikipedia, if you wish. End a sentence with a particle or even a preposition at will, with my blessing.

Nevertheless, I follow these senseless “rules” even though I know they are poppycock, because I realize people will look down their noses at me if I violate them.

I have seen how snooty some people on the Internet can be if other writers misspell words or use awkward constructions. I am often amused to see that sometimes the criticizers themselves make grammatical or syntactical errors in their diatribes against the unfortunate person who ended a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive or (heaven forfend) mistook “mantle” for “mantel,” etc.

Indeed, some readers might erroneously say my long, convoluted sentences are run-ons, since those dear people do not realize that a run-on sentence is one in which two complete sentences are jammed together without the proper punctuation, such as a semi-colon; my sentences, however, are properly punctuated, just long and wordy.

Some will scoff at my use of fragments, even though I consciously use them for effect. Or emphasis. (A friend pointed out that those two words do not make a complete sentence, but I was trying to make a point that we can use fragments for effect or emphasis.)

If people find out I have a Master’s degree in English and Latin and taught both for many years, they would be especially haughty and quick to criticize me for breaking the “rules.” Oh, well. (Heavy sigh goes here.) Carry on.

Marilyn Tucker

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Is there another grammar “rule” that you don’t think we should have to follow?

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22 thoughts on “Following Senseless Language Rules to Avoid Criticism

  1. Mrs. T., to this day I’m so careful not to end a sentence with a preposition because you drilled that rule into my senior-year brain. Unless, of course, it sounds pretentious not to. ;) Good stuff!

  2. I ran across this sentence today on the Internet. It is an excellent example of someone determined to follow the “rule.”

    students who didn’t really understand what was wanted, and hoped to cover all the possible eventualities by putting everything into an assignment of which they could think

  3. “Does German use case endings or word order to convey meaning?”

    German differentiates between the cases similar to latin, using 4 cases with three genders and one plural form. Which in principle means the word order can be swapped for effect. “Den Briefträge biss der Hund” is “The dog bit the *Postman*”, and implies that it was the postman rather than someone else that the dog bit.
    There is though a big ‘however’: as some German forms of “the” are duplicated you might not be able to tell. eg “Das Mädchen bis das Reh” reads as “the girl bit the deer” because the neuter definite article is “das” in both nominative and accusative case. Here the default order nominative-verb-accusative should not be altered (of course some people do make this kind of mistake though)

    In short: word order can be swapped for effect but only where the reader can make the distinction.

    • But, seriously, *nobody* would say that!!! It would always be “Das Mädchen wurde vom Reh gebissen”. :)
      Best regards from Vienna/Austria!

      • Sure.
        erisdoof wrote: “Das Mädchen biss das Reh” which could either mean “The girl bit the deer” or “The deer bit the girl”, but the later only if you mean it in the sense of “The girl was bitten by the deer”. But nobody, except maybe for the purpose of a poem (rhyme), would use that kind of sentence, you would always say “Das Mädchen wurde vom Reh gebissen”.
        So erisdoof is absolutely right regarding grammar, but not regarding the actual use of the language….. ;)

      • Actually–and I’m not a native speaker here, so I could be mistaken–whether you would say “Das Maedchen wurde von dem Reh gebissen” or “Das Maedchen biss das Reh” would depend on context. If the speaker wanted to emphasize who the deer bit, as opposed to who was bitten by the deer (subtle distinction, but one that we use all the time), then the second sentence would be appropriate. Here’s a

        -Ist das Reh tollwuetig? Es biss den Knabe.
        -Ich weiss es nicht. Uebrigens, das Maedchen biss das Reh, nicht den Knabe.

        This means
        -Is the deer rabid? It bit the boy.
        -I don’t know. Actually, it bit the girl, not the boy.

        Can a native speaker verify that in this case, “das Maedchen wurde von dem Reh gebissen” would make less sense?

        –a German fan who loves deer

      • Definitely the same meaning, but NOBODY would ever say this, seriousely.
        Regards from an Austrian in Austria ;)

  4. I’m a bit of a grammar/punctuation freak. It’s a problem. Anyway, I absolutely loved your article and your superb use of punctuation! It was nice to be able to read a whole article online without cringing at the misuse of poor little commas. I feel bad for commas; they are so mistreated!

  5. Latin is an inflected language and English is a syntactical language. The only remnant of inflection left in English is the possessive.
    As a language nut, try to find Umberto Eco’s essay collection called On Language and Lunacy.
    I really wanted to end those sentences with prepositions but that’s all I can think of :-)

    • Thanks for commenting. You are not the only one who pointed out that it is a fragment. I have updated the post to make it clear that I was intentionally using a fragment for emphasis. Actually, a semi-colon would not be correct here. There are three basic rules for the semi-colon, and they do not apply here. I have a page on FB called “Ask a Grammar Guru.” I will give you a link to it since it explains the three uses.

  6. I saw this pop up on my facebook feed, as I follow NaNoWriMo, and I loved it! I think in addition to prepositions, adverbs are also bullied by “grammar snobs.” If a sentence is well written and conveys the meaning it was meant to, what does it matter if it has an adverb, or even ends in a preposition or particle?

    • Shawna, I totally agree with you. I have one scene in my novel in which someone in the critique group thought a character was being sarcastic. I know JK Rowling was criticized in her early books for using “said -ly” so often, but sometimes it increases clarity. I use -ly adverbs when I need them. Thanks for your comment.

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