Two grammar myths that persist are kept alive by both textbooks and teachers. The first so-called “rule” that should not bind any speaker of English is NEVER END A SENTENCE WITH A PREPOSITION. The natural rhythm of English produces sentences that violate this “rule” on a daily basis:
“Is that the plane we’re going on?”
“What high school did you go to?”
“I don’t know where that came from.”
“What should I clean it with?”
“Who is this money for?”
Playwrights, novelists, screenwriters, and bloggers ignore the preposition-ending rule and dive headlong into the real sounds and patterns of English speech. You and I ignore the rule when we speak informally and formally and the prepositions at the ends of sentences seem natural and correct. So where did the rule come from and why does it live on?
Blame the myth on Latin. Up until the 1920s, a student educated at an exclusive American private school and Ivy League university learned to read and write both Latin and Greek. One’s knowledge of Latin in particular was an indication of superior education and learning. This reverence for Latin and its rules was the prevailing status symbol at a time in the 19th century when English grammar books were being published in mass quantities.
The first English grammar books took their rules from Latin grammar even though English is not derived directly from Latin as Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese are. It was easier to write a book if you already had a model. All you had to do was use the same chapter headings and just change the language, which is probably what happened.
The problem is that English is not like Latin, especially when it comes to prepositions. In Latin the preposition is part of the word. In Latin, the preposition is attached to the front of a word and therefore does not appear at the end of a sentence. But in English a preposition at the end of a sentence is okay. To go the Latin route makes English sound stilted and unnatural. Horror of horrors, grammarians, this makes the dreaded sentence “Where’s he at?” a perfectly good one.
The second myth that has the same Latin grammar origin is NEVER SPLIT AN INFINITIVE. In Latin and in other romance languages, the infinitive is one word. Examples: Trabajar (Spanish for to work) or vivir (French for to live). In English the infinitive is two words: the word to plus a verb. Examples: to sing, to dance, to eat. English grammar books caution against inserting any word between to and the verb. Under this rule, the following sentence would be incorrect:
“I want him to truly love me.”
If you follow the “don’t split the infinitive” rule, the sentence would read:
“I want him to love me truly.”
When you follow the rule, the sentence loses its meaning and its effect. In the first sentence where the infinitive is split, “truly” expresses intensity. In the unsplit version, “truly” expresses fidelity. Or how about the sentences that can’t be changed to conform to the rule? Example: “He was told to more than double the price.” Change that to “He was told to double the price more than . . . ??? See how the sentence comes unraveled?
The term split infinitive is in the dictionary as well as in grammar books. At least in the dictionary it is called “an arbitrary or unreasonable rule.”
A witty quote from Winston Churchill crystallizes the ridiculous state we have gotten ourselves into by failing to question English grammar rules that don’t make sense: “This is the kind of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”
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