The first thing that happens when you get to college to get an English degree is that you’re told about descriptive and prescriptive approaches to linguistics, and then told to pick a side.
The issue between the two camps is the following question: what should govern standards in language? If you think it’s well-established rules and regulations, you’re a prescriptivist. You cringe and grumble when you see a split infinitive, and you complain about how no one cares about using the language right anymore. If you think the standard in language is its use by native speakers, then you’re a descriptivist. It doesn’t mean you enjoy reading error-strewn writing or seeing words misused. It only means you recognize language as a living organism — an organism whose primary function is to facilitate the exchange of information, not adhere to rigid standards.
So what is the ‘right’ view? There really isn’t one.
Standardized grammar exists so that communication is facilitated in a consistent manner. When you use certain words in a certain order, you’re betting that the person listening to your words understands what you intend to convey by using them. Think of it like this: have you ever texted a new acquaintance, and found out they don’t use emojis in the same way you do? The feeling is a bit unsettling, and the result is awkward communication. This is the problem that standardized grammar is supposed to eliminate.
Except there isn’t one grammar, there are several. There are dialects, and jargon, and many other wonderful syntactic and stylistic deviations from the so-called standard English. They all have their separate rules, and they’re just as valuable for communication, despite what academic snobs think.
So what about common pieces of grammatical and stylistic advice that people constantly peddle to writers? Should they be taken as gospel? Let’s examine.
Can You End a Sentence With a Preposition?
Here’s something that everyone learned in school: ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong.
This myth seems to step from the 17th century grammarian obsession with making English grammar more like Latin grammar, according to the OxfordWords blog. As English progressed, it shed all kinds of rules, but this one seems to persist as a pedants’ favorite. Look at the following sentence:
What is she using that for?
Feel free to do any amount of rewrites on that sentence that you like, you won’t end up with anything that sounds as natural. Like it or not, ending sentences with prepositions is a part of standard English.
When it comes to prepositions, overuse is the problem. And endings aren’t where prepositions are usually overused. Writing littered with prepositions is, a sign of lazy editing, so make sure you’re making an informed decision when placing one in your text. Moderation is key.
In the words of someone who is not Winston Churchill:
Is Starting a Sentence With a Conjunction Wrong?
This one is peak snobbery. Everyone’s had an earful about this rule in school, and most don’t question it. However, as it turns out, it’s one of those grammatical old wives’ tales.
Practically no grammarian would oppose starting a sentence with “or” or “and”. There is one caveat, though:
“But” usage, seems to be pernicious these days. It’s not incorrect per se, but using “but” to juxtapose two things in two separate sentences, will oftentimes muddle the comparison. As with all word usage, it should be decided on a case-by-case basis, and the decision should be guided by the author’s taste.
Are Adverbs Evil?
Here’s a quote you’re likely acquainted with:
Stephen King wrote that as part of an extensive admonition of adverbs in his memoir, On Writing. it’s couched into his overall critique of timid writers, and the techniques they use to write without exerting too much effort. The thesis of the rant is that adverbs are lazy, redundant and superfluous. Well, are they?
Like all words, adverbs are instruments for the writer, and these particular words are on the blunt side. That is, they get the job done, but the job can also be done using more intricate and ornate ways.
So what is the actual problem people have with adverbs? Overuse. Any text that overindulges in using adverbs smacks of lazy writing and not enough revision. Let’s examine the following sentence:
“Considering his heart condition, help was needed urgently.”
This sentence communicates two things: 1) someone has a heart condition, 2) because of the condition, they need urgent help. Does the sentence communicate those two things in the best way possible? This is where your judgment as a writer should guide you. If you’re on the no-adverbs-ever team, this sense will be blinded by dogma.
Use your taste to guide you. If you notice that you’re using adverbs as a crutch, nix them.
How important is sound grammar and style to good writing? Plenty. No matter how good the story, no matter how unique the take, it can all be ruined by bad choices on the writer’s part. Know the rules, know which ones to follow, and constantly question them. Don’t feel like it’s your job to follow any convention. Use your judgment, and trust your taste.
When it comes to grammar, Didion got it right:
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