Bad grammar or evolving grammar – musings of a grammarian

I confess, I’m what’s not-so-fondly referred to as a grammarian – a bit of a grammar-fascist, even. I hate the US English tendency to replace ‘our’ with ‘or’ (e.g. honor instead of honour), and ‘s’ with ‘z’ (organization instead of organisation), etc. (It also infects other English-speaking countries, including South Africa, thanks to the dominance of Microsoft Office, with its ‘English (US)’ global language default.)

American simplifications aside, there are a number of errors that particularly bug me, and I am not alone in my frustrations about bad grammar. Some bloggers have created a bit of a niche for themselves providing grammar and spelling tips.

But I’ve started to wonder where to draw the line between bad grammar and evolving grammar. The instant publication that the internet provides (and the almost immediate responsiveness that results) means that most people adopt a more informal, conversational style online. We’re generally less strict about spoken grammar than we are about written grammar, and perhaps online conversations represent a convergence of the two.

Some ‘errors’ are becoming so ubiquitous (offline, as well as online), that I’ve started to question whether they’re even considered errors any longer (by the keepers of the rules).

A prime example is the split infinitive. Even Dina of Copywriting on the fly, who occasionally rants about bad grammar herself, splits an infinitive on her ‘About‘ page. (“You’ll also find invaluable inside tips on how to successfully market your business web…”)

Another increasingly common example is ending a sentence with a preposition:

Incorrect: “This is a confusing situation that I find myself in.”

Correct: “This is a confusing situation in which I find myself.”

Perhaps I’m part of a dying – albeit grammatically-correct – breed. Maybe the only test should be that there is no ambiguity and no distortion of meaning.

To be honest, I can’t really tell you why it’s wrong to split an infinitive. But, as my high school English teacher pointed out, ever since the Starship Enterprise launched its quest in Star Trek to boldly go where no man has gone before, it’s been a losing battle for English teachers.

I could probably make more of a case for the preposition – but, to be honest, I don’t always find it problematic. In the above example, I find the incorrect version more clumsy than the correct, but that isn’t true in all instances.

For my sins, I get to do a lot of proof-reading at work. But perhaps, among other things, I should give up my ongoing re-unification efforts and accept that the split infinitive is here to stay.

[Author’s note: having written a post about poor grammar, I’m bound to have missed some or other mistake, so kudos to the first person to spot one]

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9 Responses to “Bad grammar or evolving grammar – musings of a grammarian”


  1. 1 goofy 25 June 2008 at 9:49 pm

    The proscriptions against splitting infinitives and putting the preposition at the end have never been part of English grammar. I don’t think there are any modern grammar books that still advice not splitting infinitives or not putting the preposition at the end of the clause.

  2. 2 Kimota 25 June 2008 at 10:49 pm

    Thanks for the linkback.

    The incredibly informative Grammar Girl (http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/default.aspx) suggests that there has been little basis for the insistence against split infinitives and prepositional endings for a long time. Most usage guides support both and there seems to be little to suggest why strict grammarians fought the trend for so long.

    Of course, there are rules in how these are handled, particularly with prepositions. There are situations where they are still not appropriate. But I think these occasional restrictions gave rise to the belief that all such usages are forbidden, which is not the case.

    I can’t find my copy of Strunk and White right now to see what they say.

  3. 3 ahazell 26 June 2008 at 9:35 am

    Thanks for the responses. I guess that, either I was taught by strict grammarians at school, or I’m old enough to have been taught when the rules did apply more generally. To be honest, the rules I use are what I learned at school (in the ’80s) – I haven’t kept up to date with more recent texts.

  4. 4 Lauren Kent 27 June 2008 at 10:00 am

    I also find sloppy grammar extremely annoying, although I am probably guilty of it myself some of the time, in which case it is even more infuriating – and embarrassing.

    Pet peeves include: ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’ (as in ‘your so funny’) and ‘borrow’ instead of ‘lend’ (as in ‘will you borrow me a pencil?’).

    I guess people are more interested in using grammar to simply communicate rather than to be technically correct. As long as your understanding the gist of what I’m saying, you’ll borrow me a pencil!

  5. 5 H. Frielinghaus 30 June 2008 at 6:20 pm

    If I remember rightly, the prohibition on the split infinitive derives from Latin and French, both of which exercised strong influences on English when they were the languages of the conquerors. The Latin and French infinitives are single words. English grammarians have treated our two-word infinitive (to have, to be, to go, etc) as if it were a single word – as it is indeed a single concept – unsplittable except by a rank outsider. I’m in favour of keeping to this rule, even if it has a shaky logical basis, except in those rare cases where the split gives added emphasis or avoids clumsiness or confusion. There should be some benefit from breaking a rule.

    And as for glaring errors, what about the false genitives that appear everywhere: greengrocers sell potato’s, soup is served with roll’s. Maybe we could buy trousers’s at an outfitter’s?

  6. 6 ahazell 2 July 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Thanks Lauren, those are indeed some horrid errors. The first (your/you’re) is quite a global phenomenon, while I suspect the latter is uniquely South African (although, I’d be interested to hear whether anyone else has come across it).

    And H. Frielinghaus, I really appreciate the info on the etymology of the rule. I prefer to observe it too, although there is the odd occasion when I also feel that breaking the rule is warranted.

    And as for the misuse of the apostrophe you illustrated, it’s right up there with the comma splice (Mr Smith, said he was annoyed) as far as my pet peeves are concerned.

  7. 7 ahazell 25 July 2008 at 10:18 am

    Another common error (and pet peeve of mine) that I have to mention is the confusion between “uninterested” and “disinterested”. So many people use the latter when they mean the former.

    If I am “uninterested” in something, it means I’m just not interested – i.e. it bores me.
    If I am “disinterested”, then I do not have an interest in the matter – i.e. I am objective and unbiased.

    A judge should be disinterested; whether he/she is interested or uninterested in what you have to say is another matter.

  8. 8 Daisy Till-Carty 27 May 2009 at 2:06 am

    “thanks to the dominance of Microsoft Office, with it’s ‘English (US)’ global language default”

    It’s is a contraction for it is or it has.

    Its is a possessive pronoun meaning, more or less, of it or belonging to it.

    In this case, no apostrophe was needed! Because ‘its’ is posssessive.

    • 9 ahazell 28 May 2009 at 9:16 am

      Well done Daisy on being the first to spot an error. I’m embarrassed to have missed that one for so long.


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