Where Did -- Er, From Where Did These Grammar Rules Come?

Many Western intellectuals of the eighteenth century highly valued Latin and logic. Attempts to codify a prescribed English grammar often attempted to use the rules of Latin and of mathematical logic. Here are a few examples of prescriptivist rules and where they came from:

  1. Don’t use a double negative. In mathematical logic, two negations cancel each other out, creating a positive statement. So, the reasoning went, the negative words in, say, “I don’t want nothing” ought to cancel each other out. That’s not always how it works in language (for instance, “Non voglio niente” – literally “I don’t want nothing” – is the proper way to say “I don’t want anything" in Italian). However, because of the eighteenth-century love of what it viewed as scientific rationalism, authorities wanted English to be logically perfect, like math.

  2. Participle forms should be consistent. Robert Lowth, a bishop whose 1762 A Short Introduction to English Grammar was wildly popular, promoted this one. If we conjugate to drive as drive, drove, driven, Lowth argued, we should also conjugate to sit as sit, sat, sitten.

  3. Don’t split an infinitive. The judgment against split infinitives (like “to quietly play”) in English is based on the fact that no one splits infinitives in Latin. However, this is because it is impossible to split an infinitive in Latin. Unlike in English, where they take the form “to [verb],” infinitives in Latin take the form of a single word (like vivere). There’s no English-based reason to not split an infinitive.

  4. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Again, this rule came about because Latin writers didn’t end sentences with prepositions. Ending an English sentence with a preposition isn’t going to confuse anyone, though, so it’s not really a construction to run away from.

Some of the old prescriptivist rules seem absurd to contemporary readers. Others have become hard-baked into dominant dialects of English. Still others are almost universally ignored in everyday speech and informal writing, but are seen as a mark of poor education when they appear in important documents.

A lot of the prescriptivist rules for English grammar – and especially spelling – are ultimately arbitrary. Following rules that are based on misguided applications of Latin and logic, or just accidents of history, doesn’t make writing better in any objective sense.

However, it DOES make writing better in the eyes of your teachers, professors, employers, business associates, clients – basically, anyone you want to get things done with. Arbitrary or not, making sure that your writing conforms with the dominant conception of English grammar is crucial to professional success. People are likely to judge you on your grammar, and given what you now know of how random these rules are, that feels unfair – but it’s the truth.

On the bright side, having an agreed-upon standard can create space for clearer communication. Also, there are often valid reasons, like clarity and elegance of expression, to want to improve your writing – it’s not all about correcting errors but about getting your language to be as good as possible.

Perhaps best of all, standard English isn’t some uncrackable code. You can learn to use it in your professional writing, and that level of polish is sure to telegraph your capability. The next series of posts – as well as the eType tool – can take you a long way toward reaching that goal.

Alicia Holland

Alicia Holland has a B.A. in creative writing from Binghamton University and an M.A. in teaching of English from Teachers College, Columbia University. She loves to play with language and literature.

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