Common English usage misconceptions
With no authoritative language academy, guidance on English language usage can come from many sources. This can create problems, as described by Reginald Close:
Teachers and textbook writers often invent rules which their students and readers repeat and perpetuate. These rules are usually statements about English usage which the authors imagine to be, as a rule, true. But statements of this kind are extremely difficult to formulate both simply and accurately. They are rarely altogether true; often only partially true; sometimes contradicted by usage itself. Sometimes the contrary to them is also true.
Perceived usage and grammar violations elicit visceral reactions in many people. For example, respondents to a 1986 BBC poll were asked to submit "the three points of grammatical usage they most disliked". Participants stated that their noted points " 'made their blood boil', 'gave a pain to their ear', 'made them shudder', and 'appalled' them". But not all commonly held usage violations are errors; many are only perceived as such.[a]
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Though there are a variety of reasons misconceptions about correct language usage can arise, there are a few especially common ones with English. Perhaps the most significant source of these misconceptions has to do with the pseudo-scholarship of the early modern period. During the late Renaissance and early modern periods the vernacular languages of Western Europe gradually replaced Latin as a literary language in many contexts. As part of this process scholars in Europe borrowed a great deal of Latin vocabulary into their languages. England's history was even more complex in that, because of the Norman conquest, English borrowed heavily from both Norman French and Latin. The tendency among language scholars in England was to use Latin and French concepts of grammar and language as the basis for defining and prescribing English. Because French had for so long been seen as the language of the nobility, there was a tendency to see cases where English-language usage differed from French (and/or Latin) as ignorance on the part of English speakers. For example, in Germanic languages like English many words that can be used as prepositions (e.g., "Are you going with me?") can also be used as special verb modifiers (e.g., "Are you going with?"). French (like Latin, for the most part) does not have these particle words, so using a preposition in any context except as a preposition was seen as wrong (including ending a sentence with one). Similarly, because in French and Latin infinitives are a single word (as opposed to two in English), placing an adverb in the middle of an infinitive was seen as incorrect.
Many other misconceptions arise from over-application of advice that is beneficial in some cases but not all. For example, overuse of passive voice in writing can cause a passage to sound weak and, in some cases, less clear. But it does not follow, and is not true, that the passive voice is wrong or inferior in all cases.
Misconception: A sentence must not end in a preposition. Mignon Fogarty ("Grammar Girl") says, "nearly all grammarians agree that it's fine to end sentences with prepositions, at least in some cases." Fowler's Modern English Usage says that "One of the most persistent myths about prepositions in English is that they properly belong before the word or words they govern and should not be placed at the end of a clause or sentence." Preposition stranding was in use long before any English speakers considered it to be incorrect. This idea probably began in the 17th century, owing to an essay by the poet John Dryden, and it is still taught in schools at the beginning of the 21st century. But "every major grammarian for more than a century has tried to debunk" this idea; "it's perfectly natural to put a preposition at the end of a sentence, and it has been since Anglo-Saxon times." "Great literature from Chaucer to Milton to Shakespeare to the King James version of the Bible was full of so called terminal prepositions." Other grammarians have supported the practice by analogy with Latin, such as Robert Lowth in his 1762 textbook, A Short Introduction to English Grammar. The saying "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put", apocryphally attributed to Winston Churchill,[b] satirizes the awkwardness that can result from prohibiting sentence-ending prepositions.
Misconception: Infinitives must not be split. "There is no such rule" against splitting an infinitive, according to The Oxford Guide to Plain English, and it's "never been wrong to 'split' an infinitive". In some cases it may be preferable to split an infinitive. According to Phillip Howard, the "grammatical 'rule' that most people retain from their schooldays is the one about not splitting infinitives", and it is a "great Shibboleth of English syntax". According to the University of Chicago Writing Program, "Professional linguists have been snickering at it for decades, yet children are still taught this false 'rule'." In his grammar book A Plea for the Queen's English (1864), Henry Alford claimed that because "to" was part of the infinitive, the parts were inseparable. This was in line with a 19th-century movement among grammarians to transfer Latin rules to the English language. In Latin, infinitives are single words (e.g., "amare, cantare, audire").
Misconception: The words "and" and "but" must not begin a sentence. Those who impose this rule on themselves are following a modern English "rule" that was not used historically. Jeremy Butterfield described this perceived prohibition as one of "the folk commandments of English usage". The Chicago Manual of Style says:
There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as 'and', 'but', or 'so'. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.[c]
Regarding the word "and", Fowler's Modern English Usage states, "There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards." Garner's Modern American Usage adds, "It is rank superstition that this coordinating conjunction cannot properly begin a sentence." The word "but" suffers from similar misconceptions. Garner tells us, "It is a gross canard that beginning a sentence with but is stylistically slipshod. In fact, doing so is highly desirable in any number of contexts, as many style books have said (many correctly pointing out that but is more effective than however at the beginning of a sentence)". Fowler's echoes this sentiment: "The widespread public belief that But should not be used at the beginning of a sentence seems to be unshakeable. Yet it has no foundation."
Misconception: The passive voice is incorrect. It is a misconception that the passive voice is always incorrect in English and some "writing tutors" believe that the passive voice is to be avoided in all cases. But "there are legitimate uses for the passive voice," says Paul Brians. Mignon Fogarty also points out that "passive sentences aren't incorrect", and "If you don't know who is responsible for an action, passive voice can be the best choice."[d] When the active or passive voice can be used without much awkwardness, there are differing opinions about which is preferable. Bryan A. Garner notes, "Many writers talk about passive voice without knowing exactly what it is. In fact, many think that any BE-VERB signals passive voice."
Misconception: "Double negative" describes an incorrect usage. While some people use the term "double negative" only to refer to the incorrect use of a superfluous negation to emphasise an already existing negation, the term can also refer to the usually correct usage of two negatives in an expression that can be interpreted as either a positive or a neutral statement. For example, one could say "I am not unconvinced of that" to mean that one is convinced but with an emphasis on the absence of skepticism.
Misconception: Two spaces must follow each sentence. Placing two word spaces between sentences is a typographic convention used since before the invention of the typewriter that has carried over into the age of digital media. Most style guides recommend only a single space between sentences, though some make an exception for "monospaced" typefaces. Professionally published books, magazines, and newspapers also use a single space between sentences, but even this is widely overlooked.
Misconception: Every paragraph must be indented. Professionally printed material does not always have an indented first paragraph. Robert Bringhurst states that we should "Set opening paragraphs flush left" and explains as follows: "The function of a paragraph is to mark a pause, setting the paragraph apart from what precedes it. If a paragraph is preceded by a title or subhead, the indent is superfluous and can therefore be omitted."
Misconception: Paragraphs must comprise at least three sentences.[e] This is not true. Richard Nordquist states that "no rule exists regarding the number of sentences that make up a paragraph," noting that professional writers use "paragraphs as short as a single word". According to the Oxford Guide to Plain English:
If you can say what you want to say in a single sentence that lacks a direct connection with any other sentence, just stop there and go on to a new paragraph. There's no rule against it. A paragraph can be a single sentence, whether long, short, or middling.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Writing Center states on its website, "Many students define paragraphs in terms of length: a paragraph is a group of at least five sentences, a paragraph is half a page long, etc." The website explains, "Length and appearance do not determine whether a section in a paper is a paragraph. For instance, in some styles of writing, particularly journalistic styles, a paragraph can be just one sentence long."
According to Edwin Herbert Lewis's The History of the English Paragraph (1894), many of history's greatest writers used one- and two-sentence paragraphs in their works, especially, but not exclusively, in dialogue: Defoe, Bunyan, Laurence Sterne, Spenser, Scott, Dickens, Fielding, Hobbes, Bacon, George Eliot, Johnson, Locke, Lamb, Swift, De Quincey, Addison, Ruskin, Dryden, Sidney, and Milton.
Misconception: Contractions are not appropriate in proper English. Bill Walsh lists this as one of the "big myths of English usage" and Patricia O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman write, "A lot of people ... still seem to think that contractions are not quite ... quite. If you do too, you're quite wrong." Writers such as Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, and others since Anglo-Saxon days have been "shrinking English". Some opinion makers in the 17th and 18th century eschewed contractions, but beginning in the 1920s, usage guides have allowed them. "Most writing handbooks now recommend contractions", but "there are still lots of traditionalists out there who haven't gotten the word", contributing to the modern misconception that contractions are forbidden. A number of writing guides still recommend not to use contractions in academic and formal writing.
Misconception: "I feel badly" is the correct negative response to "How do you feel?" The expression "I feel badly" is often used in English, but it is not usually possible as a meaningful reply to this question because it means "I feel guilty" and implies or often requires an addition beginning with "about...". According to Paul Brians in Common Errors in English Usage, " 'I feel bad' is standard English", and " 'I feel badly' is an incorrect hyper-correction by people who think they know better than the masses."
Misconception: The phrase "begs the question" has always been synonymous with "raises the question."[dubious ] Paul Brians notes, "most people now suppose the phrase implies something quite different [from what it originally meant]: that the argument demands that a question about it be asked—raises the question" In fact, "begging the question" originally meant a certain type of logical fallacy. Merriam-Webster dictionaries include both meanings.
Misconception: "Healthy" has only recently been used to describe food. It is true that the adjective "healthful" has been pushed out in favour of "healthy" in recent times. But the distinction between the words dates only to the 19th century. Before that, the words were used interchangeably; some examples date to the 16th century. According to Paul Brians, "Many argue 'people are healthy, but vegetables are healthful '"; however, "phrases like 'part of a healthy breakfast' have become so widespread that they are rarely perceived as erroneous except by the hyper-correct."
Misconception: Non-standard, slang, or colloquial words are not real words. For instance, despite appearing as a word in numerous dictionaries, "irregardless" is dismissed as "not a word" in some style guides. All words in English originated by becoming commonly used during a certain time period, so although there are many informal words now regarded as incorrect in formal speech or writing, it does not follow that they are somehow not words. Examples of words that are sometimes alleged to be "not a word" include "conversate", "funnest", "impactful", "mentee" and "thusly". All of these appear in numerous dictionaries as English words.
Misconception: "Inflammable" means something that cannot burn. " 'Flammable' and 'inflammable' both mean 'easy to catch on fire', but so many people misunderstand the latter term that it's better to stick with 'flammable' in safety warnings", says Brians.
Misconception: "Nauseous" cannot mean suffering from nausea. Some writers on language, such as Theodore Bernstein and Bill Bryson, have advanced the idea that "nauseous" means only causing nausea (i.e., nauseating), not suffering from it (nauseated), and that it is therefore incorrect to say "I am nauseous" unless one means to say "I inspire nausea in others". This prescription is contradicted by vast evidence from English usage, and Merriam-Webster finds no source for the rule before a published letter by a physician, Deborah Leary, in 1949.
Misconception: "Xmas" is a secular plan to "take the Christ out of Christmas." "The usual suggestion is that 'Xmas' is ... an attempt by the ungodly to x-out Jesus and banish religion from the holiday." But X stands for the Greek letter chi, the starting letter of Χριστός, or "Christ" in Greek (see also the related Chi Rho symbol). The use of "Xmas" can be traced to the year 1021 when "monks in Great Britain...used the X while transcribing classical manuscripts into Old English" in place of "Christ". The Oxford English Dictionary's "first recorded use of 'Xmas' for 'Christmas' dates back to 1551." Brians adds, "so few people know this that it is probably better not to use this popular abbreviation in religious contexts."
- a.^ For example, among the top ten usage "errors" submitted to the BBC was the supposed prohibition against using double negatives.
- b.^ The Churchill Centre describes a similar version as "An invented phrase put in Churchill's mouth".
- c.^ Chicago elaborates by noting Charles Allen Lloyd’s observations on this phenomenon: "Next to the groundless notion that it is incorrect to end an English sentence with a preposition, perhaps the most wide-spread of the many false beliefs about the use of our language is the equally groundless notion that it is incorrect to begin one with "but" or "and." As in the case of the superstition about the prepositional ending, no textbook supports it, but apparently about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it. One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves."
- d.^ These authors are quick to point out, however, that the passive voice is not necessarily better—it's simply a myth that the passive voice is wrong. For example, Brians states that, "it's true that you can make your prose more lively and readable by using the active voice much more often," and Fogarty points out that "passive sentences aren't incorrect; it’s just that they often aren't the best way to phrase your thoughts".
- e.^ Or any other arbitrary number.
- Close 1964. n.p. (Front matter.) In a footnote to this text, Close also points to English as a Foreign Language by R. A. Close (George Allen and Unwin, London, 1962).
- Jenny Cheshire, "Myth 14: Double Negatives are Illogical" in Bauer and Trudgill 1998. pp. 113–114.
- Close 1964. n.p. (Front matter.)
- Cutts 2009. p. 109.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 21.
- Fogarty 2010. "Top Ten Grammar Myths."
- Fogarty 2011. pp. 45–46.
- Burchfield 1996. p. 617.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 22.
- "A misattribution no longer to be put up with". Language Log. 12 December 2004. Retrieved 29 May 2013.
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- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 17.
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- Howard 1984. p. 130.
- University of Chicago Writing Program.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 19.
- Butterfield 2008. p. 136.
- University of Chicago Press 2010. p. 257.
- Burchfield 1996. p. 52.
- Garner 2003. p. 44.
- Garner 2003. p. 118.
- Burchfield 1996. p. 121.
- Walsh 2004. pp. 61, 68–69.
- Pullum 2009.
- Brians 2009. p. 169.
- Fogarty 2010. "Active Voice Versus Passive Voice."
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- Nordquist 2011.
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2011.
- Cited with percentages at http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2011/07/paragraph.html . The original thesis is available online at http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/edwin-herbert-lewis/the-history-of-the-english-paragraph-867.shtml . Various print copies have been scanned and made available, e.g., through Amazon.com.
- Walsh 2004. p. 61, 67–68.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. pp. 32–34.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-08-30. Retrieved 2012-04-09.. Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School
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- "I feel badly" can also mean "When it comes to feeling, I do it poorly."
- Brians 2009. p. 25.
- Brians 2009. p. 28.
- "Beg", Merriam-Webster online, accessed 3 November 2011, .
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- Brians 2009. p. 124.
- Merriam-Webster 1995. p. 652.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 77.
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- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 78.
- Brians 2009. p. 255.
- The Churchill Centre and Museum at the Churchill War Rooms, London 2011. (The original text is italicized.)
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