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Jots and Tittles: The greatest mythtakes.

English grammar can be confusing at times, and this is not helped by the fact that there is no central authority regulating language use and grammar. French, for example, has its Academie Française, notorious for its hatred of anglicisms.

English just has a loose collection of “authorities”, a group of esteemed grammarians who write books about grammar. Sometimes they disagree among themselves, which just makes things even more confusing.

Over the years, however, some grammarians have made mistakes. Many of these were never recognised authorities, but their ideas — often madly at odds with actual language usage — took hold and still hold sway today, where they constitute sort of linguistic urban legends. I present some of these erroneous, but very common, myths here.

Myth 1: You cannot end a sentence with a preposition.

A preposition is a word like “of” or “about” which describes how other words relate to each other. The belief is that sentences like the following are not allowed in English: I don’t know which box it’s in. According to those who think themselves purists, the sentence should be rewritten thus: I don’t know in which box it is.

This belief took hold in the 18th century, and can apparently be traced to the 17th century poet and playwrite John Dryden. He was, quite simply, mistaken: he seems to have confused Latin grammar with English grammar.

At face value, there’s not much harm in the alternative construction, but there are hidden dangers. One danger is that the resulting construction can sound pompous or clumsy. A much greater danger, however, is that it can be applied overzealously, resulting in sentences which are not only inelegant, but grammatically wrong.

Take this sentence: Here is a sentence I have just made up. “Up” here is a preposition, surely? But how do you rewrite the sentence to avoid flouting this “law”? Here is a sentence up which I have just made is clearly nonsense. In fact, “up” is not being used as a prepostion is normally used, but is a part of the phrasal verb “to make up”, meaning “to invent”.

But in any case, ending sentences with prepositions has been a feature of English since at least the Renaissance and is to be found in the writings of most of the greatest writers in the English language.

Myth 2: You must never split an infinitve.

In English, an infinitive is preceded by the particle “to”: “to go”, for example. The myth is that you must never put anything between these two words. The most famous split infinitve of all, of course, is this one:

These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, its five-year mission: to seek out new life and new civilizations, to explore strange new worlds, to boldy go where no man has gone before.

According to the self-appointed experts, Kirk should say “boldly to go” or “to go boldly”.

The English split infinitive actually has a long pedigree and has been with us since the 14th century; it wasn’t until the 19th century when someone or other decided, for reasons unknown (but probably, again, because he thought English should follow Latin grammar rules), that this just had to stop. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, he thus contradicted such figures as John Donne, Daniel Defoe, George Eliot, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, William Wordsworth and Willa Cathe.

It is generally possible to avoid the split infinitive, and while no authority actually says you must always avoid it, most do say you should try to avoid it unless it makes your sentence unnatural, inelegant or even ambiguous.

An example of a split infinitive that should stay well and truly split is this one: The doctor failed to adequately explain the procedure he was going to use. The infinitive is split by the adverb “adequately”. If you put the adverb after the verb (The doctor failed to explain adequately the procedure…) it sounds terrible. If you put it before the “to” (The doctor failed adequately to explain…) it means that the doctor intended to fail and did so adequately. Putting the adverb at the end of the sentence means that the doctor was going to use the procedure adequately and failed to explain it. Putting it after “procedure” makes the sentence indecipherable.

Myth 3: Use the nominative case as the complement of “to be”.

Most verbs take objects: In “I read the book”, “I” is the subject, and “the book” is the object (specifically, the direct object). The verb “to be”, however, is an exception, as it is most usually used as a cupola — basically, a sort of big equals sign between two things that are the same: in Dafydd is a Welshman, “Dafydd” is the subject, but “a Welshman”, because it has the same identity as Dafydd, is a complement.

The term nominative case doesn’t really apply to English any more, since modern English has almost completely shed its case system. Rather, we talk about subjective pronouns (“I”, “they” and so on) and objective pronouns (“me”, “them” and so on).

The belief is this: The sentence It is me is wrong, because the subject and complement both have the same identity. It should therefore be It is I.

This, simply, isn’t true. And guess what? Once again, it’s people thinking that Latin grammar rules should apply to English. In English, objective pronouns are used for the complement of a cupola, and that’s all there is to it.

French, incidentally, goes one step further that this by having not just subjective and objective pronouns, but special pronouns for use as the complement of a cupola. Thus the first-person singular pronoun is “je” as the subject, “me” as the object and “moi” as the complement. C’est moi they say; C’est je is, in French, a horrendous grammar mistake.

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