Do you remember being taught you should never start your sentences with “And” or “But”?
What if I told you that your teachers were wrong and there are lots of other so-called grammar rules that we’ve probably been getting wrong in our English classrooms for years?
How did grammar rules come about?
To understand why we’ve been getting it wrong, we need to know a little about the history of grammar teaching.
Grammar is how we organise our sentences in order to communicate meaning to others.
Those who say there is one correct way to organise a sentence are called prescriptivists. Prescriptivist grammarians prescribe how sentences must be structured.
Prescriptivists had their day in the sun in the 18th century. As books became more accessible to the everyday person, prescriptivists wrote the first grammar books to tell everyone how they must write.
These self-appointed guardians of the language just made up grammar rules for English, and put them in books that they sold. It was a way of ensuring that literacy stayed out of reach of the working classes.
They took their newly concocted rules from Latin. This was, presumably, to keep literate English out of reach of anyone who wasn’t rich or posh enough to attend a grammar school, which was a school where you were taught Latin.
And yes, that is the origin of today’s grammar schools.
The other camp of grammarians are the descriptivists. They write grammar guides that describe how English is used by different people, and for different purposes. They recognise that language isn’t static, and it isn’t one-size-fits-all.
1. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction
Let’s start with the grammatical sin I have already committed in this article. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
Obviously you can, because I did. And I expect I will do it again before the end of this article. There, I knew I would!
Those who say it is always incorrect to start a sentence with a conjunction, like “and” or “but”, sit in the prescriptivist camp.
However, according to the descriptivists, at this point in our linguistic history it is fine to start a sentence with a conjunction in an op-ed article like this, or in a novel or a poem.
It is less acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction in an academic journal article, or in an essay for my son’s high school economics teacher, as it turns out. But times are changing.
2. You can’t end a sentence with a preposition
Well, in Latin you can’t. In English you can, and we do all the time.
Admittedly a lot of the younger generation don’t even know what a preposition is, so this rule is already obsolete. But let’s have a look at it anyway, for old time’s sake.
Instead, the prescriptivists would have me say: “With whom did you go to the movies?”
I’m saving that structure for when I’m making polite chat with the Queen on my next visit to the palace.
That’s not a sarcastic comment, just a fanciful one. I’m glad I know how to structure my sentences for different audiences. It is a powerful tool. It means I usually feel comfortable in whatever social circumstances I find myself in, and I can change my writing style according to purpose and audience.
That is why we should teach grammar in schools. We need to give our children a full repertoire of language so that they can make grammatical choices that will allow them to speak and write for a wide range of audiences.
3. Put a comma when you need to take a breath
It’s a novel idea, synchronising your writing with your breathing, but the two have nothing to do with one another and if this is the instruction we give our children, it is little wonder commas are so poorly used.
Commas provide demarcation between like grammatical structures. When adjectives, nouns, phrases or clauses are butting up against each other in a sentence, we separate them with a comma. That’s why I put commas between the three nouns and the two clauses in that last sentence.
Commas also provide demarcation for words, phrases or clauses that are embedded in a sentence for effect. The sentence would still be a sentence even if we took those words away. See, for example, the use of commas in this sentence.
4. To make your writing more descriptive, use more adjectives
American writer Mark Twain had it right.
When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.”
If you want your writing to be more descriptive, play with your sentence structure.
Consider this sentence from Liz Lofthouse’s beautiful children’s book Ziba Came on a Boat. It comes at a key turning point in the book, the story of a refugee’s escape.
“Clutching her mother’s hand, Ziba ran on and on, through the night, far away from the madness until there was only darkness and quiet.”
A beautifully descriptive sentence, and not an adjective in sight.
5. Adverbs are the words that end in ‘ly’
Lots of adverbs end in “ly”, but lots don’t.
Adverbs give more information about verbs. They tell us when, where, how and why the verb happened. So that means words like “tomorrow”, “there” and “deep” can be adverbs.
I say they can be adverbs because, actually, a word is just a word. It becomes an adverb, or a noun, or an adjective, or a verb when it is doing that job in a sentence.
Deep into the night, and the word deep is an adverb. Down a deep, dark hole and it is an adjective. When I dive into the deep, it is doing the work of a noun.
Time to take those word lists of adjectives, verbs and nouns off the classroom walls.
Time, also, to ditch those old Englishmen who wrote a grammar for their times, not ours.
If you want to understand what our language can do and how to use it well, read widely, think deeply and listen carefully. And remember, neither time nor language stands still – for any of us.