In era of uncertainty, even rules of grammar wobble Old experts copied from Latin

new experts say almost anything goes

November 26, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Grammar ain't what it used to be.

Time was, teachers whacked us on the knuckles when our subjects and verbs didn't match up. College professors shamed us for not never showing up for class.

At least we knew right from wrong back then.

Now, anything goes. They tell us it's OK to knowingly split infinitives. They say a preposition is a fine thing to end a sentence with. And they say we can start a sentence with "and."

And even "but."

But only if we don't overdo it.

Linguists, lexicographers and grammarians disagree on what is proper grammar these days. We who want to say it right (say it correctly?) find ourselves tongue-tied by conflicting opinions.

Blame it on the rules, says the "grammar doctor," Sue Coffman. As a former high school English teacher, former college English professor and now a Dallas-based writing consultant, Coffman has guided generations through the rules of grammar.

Coffman says there are two sets of rules -- real and artificial -- and the problem comes because we break them. First, there are real rules we follow and real rules we break. Then there are artificial rules. There are some we break and some we don't -- but we should, Coffman says.

Confused? Blame that on your ancestors.

The artificial rules that cause the most problems can be traced to the first grammar guides of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The guides came at a time when scholars deemed Latin the perfect language.

It was also a time of social upheaval, when the wealthy sought to separate themselves from the growing lower classes by using language as a social determinant, says the "grammar lady," Helen Moody, who helps scientists and engineers improve their writing.

A century later, we're stuck with the mistakes.

Take the split infinitive rule. The rule came into being when intellectuals took Latin grammar rules and applied them to English. But Latin verbs are made of one word, and English verbs often are made of two.

So Caesar couldn't split infinitives, but Shakespeare could. To split or not to split. That is the infinitive.

Moody was surprised when two new Oxford Press dictionaries recently OK'd it for modern writers to consciously split their infinitives.

"I've long regarded it like wearing white shoes after Labor Day," she said of the rule.

"If you want to get concerned about it, of course you can. It's not critical to understanding. It's mostly a matter of style."

Society has debated style for 100 years, and Bryan Garner is amused every time split infinitives make news. He's a Dallas lawyer and author of Oxford's new "Dictionary of Modern American Usage."

"Experts in usage have long rallied against these superstitions as arrant nonsense, yet they retain a firm grip -- if not a stranglehold -- on the average person's mind when it comes to writing," he said.

Take the rule that you never end a sentence with a preposition. Garner says it came from Latin, when prepositions were the one word a writer could not end a sentence with.

Garner reminds us that we're talking about English, not Latin. He cites Winston Churchill's quip about ending a sentence with a preposition: "That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put."

Another artificial rule that stuck with us -- and one that won't go away -- is the double negative.

Coffman says there's no reason we don't never do that.

Chaucer wrote with double negatives, and nobody harassed him until an 18th-century minister questioned the logic behind the construction.

The minister asked whether two negatives canceled each other and made a positive instead.

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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