Six Forgotten “Rules” of English Grammar

English grammar is weird. Many things that would have been considered “ungrammatical” in the past are now perfectly acceptable – to the point where you may never have thought twice about using them.

Here are six former rules of English. At a certain point, people broke these rules so often that they disappeared.

  1. Say “the two first,” unless you really mean “the first two.” As recently as the nineteenth century, grammar mavens warned against mixing up these similar-seeming phrases. Supposedly, a sentence like “The first two children to enter the room were Mary and John” implied that the children entered the room in pairs, of which Mary and John were the first. “The two first children to enter the room were Mary and John,” on the other hand, just meant that the children who got their first were Mary and John.

  2. Don’t use whose to refer to an object. Obviously you wouldn’t say “The house who has red doors” – you’d say “The house that has red doors” because a house is not a who. Expanding on this reasoning, grammarians of the late eighteenth century argued against constructions like “The house whose doors are red.”

  3. Say “averse from,” not “averse to.” Samuel Johnson, compiler of perhaps the most influential English dictionary in history, insisted on this one. The Latin root of averse translates to “turn from,” and Johnson believed that this had to carry over into English,

  4. Differentiate between will and shall. These days, shall has almost disappeared altogether, except in legal documents and other rarefied circumstances. However, grammar mavens of yesteryear insisted that during discussions of future actions, shall was to be used with the first person (I and we) and will with the second and third. To express a strong intent, one would reverse this, saying, for instance, “I will” and “they shall.” This rule had probably fallen out of favor by the early twentieth century.

  5. Don’t mix up such and so. From a 1910 guide to proper usage, Better Say: “‘I never have seen such a tall man’ may be intended to mean ‘I never have seen a tall man like that one in appearance or character,’ in which case the form is allowable; or it may mean ‘I never have seen so tall a man.’” If this second sentence – which we might phrase as “I’ve never seen a man as tall as that guy” – is intended, according to Better Say, such should not be used.

  6. Don’t say “all the time.” This once-uncouth alternative to always is now used, well, all the time.

Does the fact that we don’t follow these rules anymore mean that we’re all speaking broken English? Not at all. The language of Charles Dickens isn’t ungrammatical because it’s different from the language of Shakespeare, and the language of Shakespeare isn’t ungrammatical because it’s different from the language of Beowulf. English, like all languages, changes over time, and some rules are bound to fall by the wayside.

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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