Stop Being A Grammar Nazi, You’re Wrong!

Here’s the uncomfortable truth. There’s nothing wrong with split infinitives or preposition-final sentence structure. These “rules” apply to Latin prose, not the English language. We’ve been mistaken for centuries – a travesty committed and perpetuated by John Dryden, the first Grammar Nazi.

Via Bookman Beattie, an excerpt from Robert Lane Greene’s “You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity” on the origin of some Grammar Nazism:

“Why is it ‘wrong’ to end a sentence with a preposition? … Who, upon seeing a cake in the office break room, says, ‘For whom is this cake?’ instead of ‘Who’s the cake for?’ Where did this rule come from?

“The answer will surprise even most English teachers: John Dryden, the seventeenth-century poet less well known as an early, influential stickler. In a 1672 essay, he criticized his literary predecessor Ben Jonson for writing ‘The bodies that these souls were frightened from.’ Why the prepositional bee in Dryden’s syntactical bonnet? This pseudo-rule probably springs from the same source many others do: the classical languages. Dryden said he liked to compose in Latin and translate into English, as he valued the precision and clarity he believed Latin required of writers. The preposition-final construction is impossible in Latin. Hence: it is impossible in English. Confused by his logic? Linguists remain so to this day. But once Dryden proclaimed the rule, it made its way into the first generation of English usage books roughly a century later and thence into the minds of two hundred years of English teachers and copy editors.

I do happen to often write and speak avoiding the preposition-final construction – not always, but I do most of the time. It makes me sound contrite and haughtier than I otherwise would sound. This makes some people perceive me as even more foreign than I most definitely am. The consequence of this shows up in the discomfort of people around me. They tend to think I speak down to them instead of simply following what I was always taught in school. I learned to speak English in a classroom, which means I learned formal English and its rules long before I learned informal English and the liberalization of those rules.

I don’t think I will ever fully integrate into common English informality, but we can at least appreciate the founding of Grammar Nazism and hopefully put an end to it before we vilify yet another soul genuinely innocent of any crime of diction, tongue or rhyme.

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