Grammar rules you can break

Linguist and popular author Steven Pinker has a new book out – The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.  A savvy sort, Pinker recently engaged in a piece of content-marketing by writing a piece for the Guardian titled 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes).

Trouble is, the resultant article is nearly 5,000 words long and probably too lengthy to be seen a good example of content-marketing. So here is a selection of choice quotes from Pinker about pesky grammatical rules…

On conjunctions

‘And’, ‘but’ and ‘so’ are indispensable in linking individual sentences into a coherent passage, and they may be used to begin a sentence whenever the clauses being connected are too long or complicated to fit comfortably into a single megasentence.

On dangling modifiers

Considering how often these forms turn up in edited prose and how readily they are accepted even by careful readers, two conclusions are possible: either dangling modifiers are a particularly insidious grammatical error for which writers must develop sensitive radar, or they are not grammatical errors at all. (Did you notice the dangler in the sentence before last?)

On ‘like’ and ‘such as’

A related superstition, ruthlessly enforced by many copy editors, is that “like” may not be used to introduce examples, as in ‘Many technical terms have become familiar to laypeople, like “cloning” and “DNA”. They would correct it to ‘such as “cloning” and “DNA”.’ According to this guideline, ‘like’ may be used only for resemblance to an exemplar, as in ‘I’ll find someone like you’ and ‘Poems are made by fools like me.’ Few writers consistently follow this bogus rule. ‘Such as’ is more formal than ‘like’, but both are legitimate.

On split infinitives

Most mythical usage rules are merely harmless. The prohibition of split infinitives (as in ‘Are you sure you want to permanently delete all the items and subfolders in the ‘Deleted Items’ folder?’) and the even more sweeping prohibition of ‘split verbs’ (as in ‘I will always love you’ and ‘I would never have guessed’) is downright pernicious.

On ‘less’ and ‘fewer’

Clearly, the purists have botched the ‘less-fewer’ distinction. ‘Less’ is perfectly natural with a singular count noun, as in ‘one less car’ and ‘one less thing to worry about’…  In cases where ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ are both available, such as ‘Less/fewer than 20 of the students voted’, ‘fewer’ is the better choice because it enhances vividness and concreteness. But that does not mean that ‘less’ is a grammatical error.

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