And it’s OK to do this too

As we’ve seen in our past few installments, myths, both grammatical and otherwise, often arise from misunderstandings or incomplete information. This is certainly true of the current situation surrounding the novel coronavirus. Because there are gaps in our knowledge about this new virus, there is a lot of confusion, which has in turn led to a lot of myths.

Many of you are no doubt familiar with the fact-checking website Snopes. Of the top 50 trending claims they have recently investigated, only 12 are not related to the coronavirus. Some of the more interesting ones include several supposed predictions of the outbreak in various books or media; a method to check yourself for infection by holding your breath; and the allegation that Corona beer sales have suffered because some people believe that the beer is connected to the virus.

Our grammar myth for today also comes from incomplete information and confusion. I’d bet that many of you (like me) were taught in school not to begin sentences with conjunctions. These are the little words that are used to link words, clauses (parts of sentences), and even complete sentences: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. According to the spurious “rule,” the second sentence in each of these examples is incorrect (the conjunction is underlined):

I looked everywhere for toilet paper, with no luck. And my neighbor said that the grocery store was out of disinfectant wipes.

There are many cases of COVID-19 in the New York metropolitan area, so it is locked down very tightly. But here in Florida, restrictions vary county by county.

Start looking for this and you’ll find it everywhere, because . . . there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Look back at what I said above about conjunctions: they are words that link other words, clauses, and even complete sentences. That’s a paraphrase of the guidance in The Chicago Manual of Style, one of the most respected and widely used style guides in the English-speaking world. And other style guides that I consulted agree.

Notice in the examples that using a conjunction at the beginning of the second sentence can be an effective way to create a smooth transition. In the first example, the second sentence starting with And amplifies the first. The use of But in the second example emphasizes the contrast between the sentences. If you were to make either example into one sentence, it would be very long and cumbersome—what is sometimes called a run-on sentence.

So why were we taught not to do this? One of the most popular explanations I’ve encountered in my research is that teachers use it as an easy way to keep students from writing sentence fragments, which lack either a subject (an actor) or a verb (an action), and could look something like this:

When the lockdown is over, I want to go to out to eat. And to the beach.

The second sentence here is not a sentence at all, but a fragment, because it contains no verb. A corrected version would be:

When the lockdown is over, I want to go out to eat and to the beach.

Once I learned as an adult that using conjunctions at the beginning of sentences is OK, it became one of my favorite transition devices. You might have noticed this in my previous posts, so I’ve decided to make this a contest! Count the sentences in this post and in the previous two (St. Patrick, Snakes, and Split Infinitives; Busting Grammar Myths) that start with the conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.  Drop me an email at by April 10 with your total to enter. And yes, there’s a prize—a copy of The Sense of Style, a fabulous book on writing and English usage. The winner will be announced on April 14! 

I hope everyone is doing well—stay healthy and safe!

St. Patrick, Snakes, and Split Infinitives

Even if you’re not of Irish ancestry, I’m sure you’ve heard the legend that there are no snakes in Ireland because St. Patrick drove them out. Although my husband swears that his great-great-great-grandfather helped the saint with this chore, the story is just that—a story. There have been no snakes in Ireland since the last Ice Age. 

Legends and myths abound in all aspects of life, including grammar, so last time around we set out on a mission to explode some of the most common ones. You might remember “rules” that you learned in school but maybe haven’t thought about in years. Turns out a lot of them aren’t hard and fast laws; they’re more like guidelines. Today let’s look at the spurious prohibition against splitting infinitives.

First of all, what’s an infinitive? It’s simply the word to plus a verb (action word): to love; to write; to play, etc. In grammatical terms, it is the uninflected form of the verb—that is, it describes the action itself. In these examples, I’ve underlined it:

I’d like to go to the pub for green beer tonight.  

St. Patrick used a shamrock to illustrate the theological concept of the Holy Trinity.

So far, so good. The problem can come up when we want to add some sort of descriptor to the infinitive. If you put that description word or words between the to and the verb, that is a split infinitive:

The attendance at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is expected to more than double.

Some scholars continue to adamantly maintain that St. Patrick had no role in the conversion of Ireland.

There is no way to rewrite the first example to unsplit the infinitive without it sounding strange: The attendance at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is expected more than to double.

In the second example, you could move adamantly: Some scholars continue adamantly to maintain–but that could make it unclear whether adamantly goes with continue or maintain. Or you could go with Some scholars continue to maintain adamantly… That’s not bad, but adamantly has a lot more punch when it comes right before maintain, doesn’t it?

So these are some cases in which you might want to preserve a split infinitive—and again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that.

But getting back to legends and myths: one of the reasons they stand the test of time is that they usually contain at least a kernel of truth. In the case of St. Patrick and the snakes, many historians agree that the story is likely an allegory for the saint’s success in removing what was considered an evil—paganism, represented by the snakes—from Ireland.

The kernel of truth in the “rule” about infinitives is that, even though you can split them, it’s not always a good idea. As with many other topics we’ve covered, such as the use of adjectives and adverbs, you should think carefully about exactly what you want to say, as well as the style and tone of your writing. In more formal writing, it’s generally better to not split infinitives if possible. (See what I just did there? 😊 )

Fortunately, in some cases keeping the infinitive unsplit turns out to be the better option. Here’s a sentence with a split infinitive:

Some people of Irish ancestry are searching for ways to more authentically celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

And with the infinitive unsplit:

Some people of Irish ancestry are searching for ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day more authentically.

Fixing this split infinitive makes for a better sentence because in the original there’s a lot of distance between to and celebrate. Moving more authentically to the end also highlights it more, because the end of a sentence is the position that gets the most emphasis.

Sometimes it just comes down to a matter of which way sounds more natural. Imagine a mother saying this to her teenage daughter on the morning of March 18th, after the latter discovered that some drugstore hair color was not quite as temporary as she had thought:

I told you not to dye your hair green.

That just sounds better than I told you to not dye your hair green, doesn’t it?

So be on the lookout for split infinitives in the wild, and please feel free to comment below with your thoughts on whether they were used effectively!

And no matter your ancestry, happy St. Patrick’s Day! (But no green hair for me, thanks.)

Busting Grammar Myths

When our twin sons were growing up, they loved the TV show MythBusters. If you never had a chance to see it, the show tested popular urban legends, such as claims that pirates wore eye patches in order to keep their night vision, or that two colliding bullets could fuse together. The other resident guy in our house, my husband, also became an immediate fan. I have to admit, though, that after just an episode or two, I too was hooked. I don’t know if it was due to my latent tomboy tendencies, or just the reality of being the only female awash in a sea of testosterone. At any rate, the show was educational but also very entertaining, and of course all three of my guys particularly enjoyed the experiments involving explosions. 

Regrettably, MythBusters is no longer producing new episodes, at least not as far as I can tell from my research. (If anyone has information to the contrary, I’d love to know!) But I’d like to offer a tribute with a series of articles dedicated to grammatical mythbusting: exploding so-called “rules” that in fact . . . are not.

In our last installment, we talked about avoiding the overuse of prepositional phrases, so looking at another issue involving prepositions seems like a good place to start. Our grammar myth to bust today is the injunction against ending a sentence with a preposition (at, by, of, on, to, about, before, after, behind, during, for, from, in, over, under, with, etc.). So, supposedly, you shouldn’t say, and especially not write, sentences such as:

What are you looking at?

John is the person I came with.

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill allegedly dismissed this spurious rule as “nonsense up with which I will not put.” Alas, Churchill’s quote is also a myth, but it effectively demonstrates why there is no solid basis for this rule: slavish adherence to it results in sentences that don’t reflect how English is actually used.

There are two situations that can result in a preposition at the end of a sentence. One is the use of what is sometimes called a phrasal verb–one that combines with another word or two, usually prepositions, to create a meaning different from that of the verb alone. Some common examples are: ask out; add up to; back up; break down; check in; come across; pull off…you get the idea, and I’m sure you could come up with many more of your own. Churchill’s quote-that-wasn’t contains one of these: put up with, meaning “to tolerate”—and the rearrangement of this phrasal verb is what gives the quip its humorous twist.

Consider the following. If you wanted to rewrite these so that they didn’t end with prepositions, you’d have to do a bit of reworking, which could affect a nuance you might want to express: 

While you’re on the way, could you please pick me up?

You can always count on Jane to back you up.

Sharon is hoping that David will ask her out.

In the other situation, however, a preposition has indeed been separated from the word that would ordinarily come after it (its object). Our first examples above fall into this category:

What are you looking at?

John is the person (whom) I came with.

These could be rewritten, putting the preposition and its object back together—notice how in the second sentence we have to add whom to serve as the object, which is why I added it to the original in parentheses:

At what are you looking?

John is the person with whom I came.

How do those rewrites sound compared to the originals? Don’t they sound more formal? So this is something to consider. Yes, you can end sentences with prepositions—but always give them a second look to be sure that it’s appropriate to the style and tone of your writing. When in doubt, it’s always better to err on the side of being too formal. And if you’re not sure whether you have a phrasal verb, here’s a list of 200 of them! 

So, aren’t you relieved that this is one “rule” that you don’t have to worry much about anymore? Please feel free to comment below about any other grammar myths that you think need busting!