Alexa Steele in beBee in English, Writers, Marketing and Communications Marketing Consultant • Mystique Marketing Sep 26, 2016 · 3 min read · 2.0K

Your English teacher lied to you

Your English teacher lied to you

American writer takes on English grammar with memes.

On my bookshelf sits a small pile of books. Among them:

I’ve not referenced them in years. If I have a question about English grammar, usage, or style, I ask Google. It’s faster, easier, and more up to date.

Still, the books hold a special place in my heart. Each contains lessons about English that has quenched my curiosity, fueled my passion, and contributed to my growth as a writer.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that English is not the restrictive, rule-bound language we’re taught in grammar school. It is, in fact, highly flexible, incredibly forgiving, and ever-changing.

An (oversimplified) history of English grammar

English is a Germanic language, a description that used to confuse me. I always thought English had more in common with French or Spanish than German. (Says the American writer who speaks a mere handful of words in French, Spanish, German, or any foreign language.)

Your English teacher lied to youMy meager analysis did have some merit, though. The Germanic origins of English are rooted way back in the 5th century when Angles and Saxons first made a home in the British Isles. In the following centuries the language transformed as speakers encountered, traded with, were conquered by, and married foreign peoples (notably, the Vikings and Normans).

By the time scholars started writing down English grammar rules in the late 1500s, the language barely resembled the Old English of yore (the image to the left is the Old English epic poem, Beowulf). It had absorbed much French and Latin. But that didn’t make it a Romance language. So when they tried to apply Latin grammar to English, they ran into some issues:

"The first English grammars were modelled on Latin grammars. These made English appear to fall short in a number of ways. It is not possible to end a sentence with a preposition in Latin; double negatives are not used in Latin; double comparatives are impossible in Latin; infinitives cannot be split in Latin. A sense that English was inferior became inbuilt. . . As a result of this bias towards foreign grammar, written English was set against the grain of spoken English.” –Christopher Mulvey, The Development of English Grammar, an English Project Talk

The separation between written English grammar and spoken English continued right through to the 20th century. According to Christopher Mulvey (quoted above), more permissive attitudes about grammar didn’t gain traction until the 1960s – perhaps explaining why Boomers are so much more persnickety about grammar than we millennials are.

Some rules are worth breaking

Many English grammar “rules” are really the preferences of snooty dead men. Despite being refuted by modern linguists, these grammar myths are so ingrained they not only survive, but thrive.

Never end a sentence with a preposition

Your English teacher lied to you

Although Churchill never really said it, the “up with which I will not put” quote illustrates how tongue tied you can get trying to abide by this grammar myth. Prepositions like withofat, and up are perfectly natural and grammatical at the end of an English sentence.

Never split an infinitive

Your English teacher lied to you

The mission statement for the Starship Enterprise contains perhaps the most famous split infinitive of all time. The rule against inserting an adverb (like “boldly”) into an an infinitive verb (like “to go”)  comes from the fact that in Latin infinitives are just one word and cannot be split. Many editors find the split infinitive undesirable, but it is not ungrammatical.

Never start a sentence with a conjunction

Your English teacher lied to you

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, we can’t blame Latinists for this one. The false prohibition against starting sentences with words like andor, or but most likely came from English teachers trying to stop students from writing sentence fragments.

But some rules are here to stay

Writing the way you want while telling self-appointed grammar cops where they can stick their “rules” can be fun; it can also make your writing more colorful.

HOWEVER, grammar is ultimately about structuring your writing so that it is understandable. If your goal is clear, concise, intelligent communication, you can’t simply ignore grammar.

Irregular verbs

Your English teacher lied to you

One of the legacies of English’s mixed heritage (Old English, Norse, French, Latin) is a whole barrel of words that no longer seem to make any sense: words like bringchoose, make, and eat that inexplicably turn into brought, chosemade, and ate in the past tense. But unless you want your communications to sound like they were written by a lolcat, you have got to get these right.

Word order

Your English teacher lied to you

I am is a statement. Am I is a question. Getting your words in the right order is vital. Even Yoda’s grammar is carefully crafted to sound unusual yet deliver a calculated message. If you don’t pay attention to word order, you could end up saying something you really don’t mean.

Punctuation (technically not grammar, but close enough)

Your English teacher lied to you

Sure, it can be hard to remember exactly where to put a comma, or worse, a semicolon. In the age of text-speak and emoji, punctuation may even seem antiquated. (Dan Bilefsky has a brilliant piece on the disappearing period.) But when we speak, we use pauses and inflection to convey meaning not easily translated to paper. Punctuation fills this gap and makes your writing easier to understand.

When in doubt

The cool thing about English is that even if you a mistake your readers will probably catch your meaning. In fact, authors, poets, and playwrights have been breaking grammar rules on purpose since forever.

Still, there is a difference between breaking grammar rules for effect and just plain bad writing. Poor grammar can have real consequences. When in doubt, it is best to use formal grammar (even if that means honoring your boss’s pet peeve against split infinitives).

If English grammar is not your forte Alexa Steele can help. An American writer specializing in marketing and digital communications, Alexa is available to be your editor, proofreader, or ghostwriter. You can contact her here for a price quote. And if you enjoyed this post please give it a buzz.

Alexa Steele Sep 29, 2016 · #23

#22 Thank you, Donna-Luisa. If you're interested in the history part I highly suggest clicking on the "Vikings" and "Normans" links in the story. That'll take you to a far more in-depth conversation on the subject.

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Donna-Luisa Eversley Sep 29, 2016 · #22

Loved it @Alexa Steele...your history lesson on English and the Latin influence is great. Enjoyed it

Alexa Steele Sep 27, 2016 · #21

#20 Thank you, @John White, MBA!

John White, MBA Sep 27, 2016 · #20

@Alexa Steele: Great buzz! We have shared it to 10 Twitter accounts.

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Alexa Steele Sep 26, 2016 · #19

#18 I'm so glad you liked it! But plz don't mistake me for a comma/grammar cop. Reference:

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John Valledor Sep 26, 2016 · #18

I truly enjoyed reading your buzz and the memes you included inspired my initial comment. God bless you for being a 'comma cop' with a sense of humor. Looking forward to reading your next insightful buzz. Respectfully, John #17

Alexa Steele Sep 26, 2016 · #17

#16 Actually, John, you've made my final point beautifully. Despite your best efforts to use bad English, I was able to understand you! Now, I wouldn't suggest filling out your resume like that, but in this context, have fun!

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John Valledor Sep 26, 2016 · #16

I likie reding dis buz? Englesh is fav mine kinda sobject. LOL
Hoping you have a sense of humor.

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