Debunking Some Old Grammar Myths

Perhaps you remember these commandments of grammar:

Don't split an infinitive.
Don't end a sentence with a preposition.

Well, consider those rules bogus. I'm often asked whether those rules have changed. My answer is not that they've changed; it's that they were never legitimate rules to begin with. Here's why.

In the 16th century, a group of self-proclaimed grammarians got together and decided there should be some hard-and-fast rules of English usage. They decided that English should be more like Latin. That is, English should not have split infinitives because Latin infinitives are never split, and English should not have prepositions at the ends of sentences because Latin doesn't allow that, either.

The problem with these blanket proclamations is that English grammar is not based on Latin. English is a Germanic language. German has verb particles (in the form of prepositions) that can be separated from their main verbs. Stehen sie auf, a German command meaning "stand up," has the main verb at the beginning (stehen) and the verb particle at the end of the command (auf). The sie means "you," so, literally, it is Stand you up. English follows the same rules: Give it up and put it on are two examples of separable verbs. Also consider these clunkers:

The medications to which you are allergic
The items to which you refer
The books with which I am familiar
The items from which to choose
The elements of which it consists
The program to which you are listening (which I hear every day on my local NPR station)

There's no legitimate reason to avoid these constructions:

The medications you are allergic to
The items you refer to
The books I am familiar with
The items to choose from
The elements it consists of
The program you are listening to

But there is a construction that is incorrect:

We're going to a play. Want to come with?

That type of construction needs an object of the preposition: us.

Now, on to split infinitives. Too many self-proclaimed grammarians complain about this well-known statement:

To boldly go where no one has gone

If the reason to avoid split infinitives is to make English more like Latin, then consider that a Latin infinitive consists of just one word. An English infinitive consists of two words: to + verb. That alone nullifies the argument. And the same argument for verb particles applies to infinitives: They can be separated.

So, go ahead: Split and dangle with a clear conscience.