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A Word, Please: Some great grammatical myths revealed

July 06, 2012|By June Casagrande

Recently in this space, I touched on two widespread grammar myths that just won't die: the so-called split infinitive and the dreaded sentence-ending preposition (Re. "Yes, there are superstitions in grammar," June 16). An astounding number of people think these are grammar no-nos, even though they never were.

For example, here is what radio personality and author Patricia T. O'Conner started dealing with after her book "Woe Is I" came out in 1996.

"People started sending me their questions, observations and grievances about language," she reports in her newest book, "Origins of the Specious." "To my surprise, every other message seemed to involve a myth, misunderstanding, or mystery about English. … Would-be sticklers scolded me whenever I split an infinitive on the air or (gasp!) ended a sentence with a preposition. Yet all those are misconceptions, even that business about what not to end a sentence with."

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For decades now, experts have been trying to dispel some of the most popular grammar myths. And, for decades now, they've failed. The two already mentioned are the biggies, but there are others that, in the interest of spreading good information after bad, we will look at here.

From time to time I get emails scolding me for starting a sentence with "and." Sometimes I also get chewed out for beginning them with "but," "so" and "because." Yet there isn't a credible source under the sun that considers these wrong.

"Everybody agrees that it's all right to begin a sentence with 'and,' and nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some past time that the practice was wrong," according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.

This reference guide even suggests a theory as to how this misperception spread. It probably started out as a way "to correct the tendency of children to string together independent clauses or simple declarative sentences with 'ands': 'We got in the car and we went to the movies and I bought some popcorn and … '"

As a copy editor, I've noticed that "and" at the beginning of a sentence is sometimes a bad choice. It's often unnecessary and inefficient. So it may be good advice to avoid "and" at the beginning of a sentence.

But it's not a rule and never has been. Ditto that for "but," "so" and "because."

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