Rules. Rules on top of rules. More rules on top of those rules. We're inundated with them and exhorted to follow them to the letter (or at least until the next time the Faceless Standards Committee changes them). But life could and should be a lot simpler for us.
Consider the lowly split infinitive. If it's good enough for Captain Kirk "to boldly go", it's certainly good enough for me. Do you know why, Eighteenth Century grammarian Robert Lowth decided we shouldn't split infinitives? Simply because, in the nobler languages (read: "Latin"), they didn't split infinitives. Of course they didn't split them! As in most languages, the Latin infinitive is a single word! All we really need to know about the topic should come to us from H.W. Fowler, author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:
|The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish. Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes. |
Lowth had another rule that he took from his beloved Latin: never, never, never end a sentence with a preposition. Unfortunately, his textbook, A Short Introduction To English Grammar (first published in 1762) remained the bane of elementary school students until the beginning of the 20th century. Winston Churchill, who wrote far more readable books than Lowth, ridiculed the whole thing with the pronouncement: "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put."
Are you terrified to use double negatives? You should be with Lowth's shade hovering over you. He reasoned that, since two negatives make a positive in mathematics, you should just use the positive in the first place. Chaucer said: "Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous". That's a triple negative: there never was no man nowhere so virtuous. I doubt Lowth ever read the Canterbury Tales, since this one phrase alone probably would have induced a fatal heart attack (thereby saving many suffering generations from his prescriptivist rules).
A popular word in Lowth's time was "ain't". Guess who didn't like it? (I ain't gonna keep you in the dark: it was Lowth!) Can I see a show of hands from everyone who doesn't use "ain't" on a daily basis. (OK. All you liars can put your hands down, now.) Yet we can't use it in our manuals, can we?
In case your hatred of Robert Lowth hasn't yet turned to pure loathing, consider that he was the one who decreed that you must say different from and not different than. He also decided that the comparison of two items should be different than [sorry Bob!] three or more (the better versus the best) and, in the same vein, threw in the laws for between and among. Additionally, his was the twisted mind that codified the incomprehensible rules governing shall and will (which, fortunately, few people pay the slightest attention to today).
Sadly for us, Lowth, a bishop and a Latin scholar, didn't care at all how his contemporaries spoke English. His only concern was trying to coerce English (basically a Germanic language) into the grammatical structure of Latin. This, in spite of his own feeling about "forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language." (Presumably, he didn't consider Latin a "foreign" language.)
My own pet grammatical peeve (ever since I had a protracted, but ultimately successful, battle over it with my book publisher) is about the capitalization of words in a title. What moron decreed that some words in a title should have initial caps and some shouldn't? (I'd like to blame Lowth, but it doesn't seem to have been him this time.) As a title, It's in the Groove looks silly. Moreover it takes a measurably longer time to read, since you first have to reconstruct it as It's In The Groove in your head so that it makes sense as a title. Who decided that the is not an "important" word and therefore not worthy of capitalization? Who said that prepositions of under six letters aren't capitalized, but longer ones are? Should a word's importance in a sentence somehow be linked to its length? As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers, and divines."
My other pet grammatical peeve (out of a list of several hundred) is having to place some punctuation inside quotations and some not. Why should a comma go inside, but not a semicolon? There simply is no good reason. All punctuation not part of the quote itself belongs outside the quotation marks. The bottom line is that it should be easy for us to write and easy for readers to understand. As long as punctuation is uniformly outside quotation marks (except for punctuation that belongs with the quote), there will be no confusion in anyone's mind.
Finally, are you a slave to running that spell checker on your documents? Remember that Andrew Jackson said "It is a damned poor mind indeed that can't think of at least two ways of spelling any word." He was president of the United States, more than we can say about anyone who ever wrote a grammar textbook or tried to enforce absurd grammatical rules. But you don't even have to take his word for it. Wasn't William Shakespeare the finest writer in the English language? Consider that there are only six of his signatures surviving and he spelled his own name differently in every one of them! (And, if you're interested, he never once spelled it "Shakespeare".)
It's time to throw away that so-called "manual of style". Just put customers first by writing so that real people (not the Faceless Standards Committee) can understand you. If you've never quite understood the difference between which and that, don't worry: none of your readers do either (what's more, they only care about how to use the product).
In conclusion.... Well, I don't really need one, do I? If you're a poor harried writer, oppressed by the Faceless Standards Committee, you understand exactly what I'm saying. If, on the other hand, you either are a member of the FSC or aspire to be one, you've lost the ability to understand.
[Since time is money, the time I've saved writing a conclusion might be enough for me to afford a first edition of Lowth's A Short Introduction To English Grammar. It does have its uses, you know. For example, it could be used to start a nice, cozy bonfire. Who's got the marshmallows?]