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

You can follow this site by using the “follow me via email” box above. I will be posting once a month. My goal is to make you laugh.

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