A recent article in the Guardian by the psychologist and linguist Professor Steven Pinker criticises the so-called amateur language mavens who persist in thinking that something is ungrammatical, based on what they were once taught in school, or on what someone once told them (read the article here). He won't have been surprised to get over a thousand comments on the article, language being one of the subjects that everyone has a strong opinion about. Pinker highlights ten points often considered to be grammatical mistakes, and debunks the myths.
He says that if you remember being told at school not to start a sentence with And or Because, this was probably because your teachers were trying to help you know how to break sentences. However, there is little point in having to obey this rule when you are an adult. If you believe that it is ungrammatical to end a sentence with a preposition, you are following, not a time-honoured grammatical rule, but an arbitrary rule proposed by the 17th-century poet John Dryden, who said that English was analogous to Latin, but in actual fact was mainly implying that Ben Jonson was his inferior when it came to writing verse.
Another so-called rule remembered from one's early schooldays is that a pronoun serving as the complement of the verb to be should be in the nominative case, not the accusative. So, not 'Hi, it's me', as most people say, but 'Hi, it's I'. This rule came about, says Pinker, because of the usual three confusions: confusing English with Latin, confusing informal style with incorrect grammar, and confusing syntax with semantics.
In 2009 Obama had to swear, in his presidential inauguration, 'I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully', rather than, as had been said on previous such occasions, to solemnly swear 'that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States'. This was apparently because Chief Justice John Roberts could not bear to hear a verb (I will execute) being split - a similar bugbear to the question of whether infinitives should be split. This rule is again based on the premise that English is like Latin, but, of course, the infinitive is just one word in Latin (amare = to love), not two, as in English. Indeed, sometimes, as Pinker notes, splitting the infinitive makes very good sense as it clarifies the meaning. In the sentence 'The board voted immediately to approve the casino', is it the vote that is immediate or the approval? Many people will find the sentence ambiguous. The sentence 'The board voted to immediately approve the casino', even though it does have a split infinitive, makes the meaning clearer.
Other contentious issues raised by Pinker in this long article (cynics might notice that he has a new book coming out next month) concern the use of who or whom, that or which, and less or fewer. Read the full article here.