Steven Pinker: 10 'grammar rules' it's OK to break (sometimes)
'Among the many challenges of writing is dealing with rules of correct usage: whether to worry about split infinitives, fused participles, and the meanings of words such as "fortuitous", "decimate" and "comprise". Supposedly a writer has to choose between two radically different approaches to these rules. Prescriptivists prescribe how language ought to be used. They uphold standards of excellence and a respect for the best of our civilisation, and are a bulwark against relativism, vulgar populism and the dumbing down of literate culture. Descriptivists describe how language actually is used. They believe that the rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, say the Descriptivists, and people should be allowed to write however they please.
It's a catchy dichotomy, but a false one. Anyone who has read an inept student paper, a bad Google translation, or an interview with George W Bush can appreciate that standards of usage are desirable in many arenas of communication. They can lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.
But this does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Thistlebottom's classroom is worth keeping. Many prescriptive rules originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries.
How can you distinguish the legitimate concerns of a careful writer from the folklore and superstitions? These are the questions to ask. Does the rule merely extend the logic of an intuitive grammatical phenomenon to more complicated cases, such as avoiding the agreement error in "The impact of the cuts have not been felt"? Do careful writers who inadvertently flout the rule agree, when the breach is pointed out, that something has gone wrong? Has the rule been respected by the best writers in the past? Is it respected by careful writers in the present? Is there a consensus among discerning writers that it conveys an interesting semantic distinction? And are violations of the rule obvious products of mishearing, careless reading, or a chintzy attempt to sound highfalutin?
A rule should be rejected, in contrast, if the answer to any of the following questions is "Yes." Is the rule based on some crackpot theory, such as that English should emulate Latin, or that the original meaning of a word is the only correct one? Is it instantly refuted by the facts of English, such as the decree that nouns may not be converted into verbs? Did it originate with the pet peeve of a self-anointed maven? Has it been routinely flouted by great writers? Is it based on a misdiagnosis of a legitimate problem, such as declaring that a construction that is sometimes ambiguous is always ungrammatical? Do attempts to fix a sentence so that it obeys the rule only make it clumsier and less clear?
Finally, does the putative rule confuse grammar with formality? Every writer commands a range of styles that are appropriate to different times and places. A formal style that is appropriate for the inscription on a genocide memorial will differ from a casual style that is appropriate for an email to a close friend. Using an informal style when a formal style is called for results in prose that seems breezy, chatty, casual, flippant. Using a formal style when an informal style is called for results in prose that seems stuffy, pompous, affected, haughty. Both kinds of mismatch are errors. Many prescriptive guides are oblivious to this distinction, and mistake informal style for incorrect grammar.
The easiest way to distinguish a legitimate rule of usage from a grandmother's tale is unbelievably simple: look it up. Consult a modern usage guide or a dictionary with usage notes. Many people, particularly sticklers, are under the impression that every usage myth ever loosed on the world by a self-proclaimed purist will be backed up by the major dictionaries and manuals. In fact, these reference works, with their careful attention to history, literature and actual usage, are the most adamant debunkers of grammatical nonsense. (This is less true of style sheets drawn up by newspapers and professional societies, and of manuals written by amateurs such as critics and journalists, which tend to mindlessly reproduce the folklore of previous guides.)'