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A little bit of grammar
#1  Pulpmeister 06-10-2015, 12:32 AM
When I was a schoolboy, a long time ago, I was taught some grammar. No doubt most of it finished up deep in my subconscious, and I use it without being aware of it; but there are some lessons that somehow remained in my conscious mind, perhaps because they seemed arbitrary.

Don't split the infinitive.
Don't start a sentence with and or but.
Don't end a sentence with a preposition.
Don't confuse who and whom

The strange thing about this is that I never asked where these rules, or indeed any rules of grammar, actually came from.
Out of a grammar book, to be sure; but who wrote the grammar books, and where did they get the rules of grammar from? Are they inherent in the language, or did the grammar book authors make them up? Or did they borrow them from somewhere else?
The answer it seems is "all of the above."

Why shouldn't we split the infinitive?

When the earliest English grammarians set to work, they knew only one Grammar intimately: Latin. They were Latin scholars, and indeed early English Grammars were actually written in Latin, bizarre as it sounds. It made sense at the time, though, as this was in the era between Chaucer and Shakespeare. The language of learning in England was still Latin, even though no-one actually spoke it.
Now, in Latin, verbs have an infinitive case, (which is very important in Latin grammar.) And in Latin, this is a single word. To arrive at an English equivalent, the early scholars translated the Latin infinitive, and discovered that they needed two words to do it.

Latin: amare
English: to love

The grammarians must have concluded, therefore, that "to love" was the infinitive verb, even though it was two words. Since you can't split the infinitive in Latin, you musn't split it in English; 'to' must remain welded to 'love' no matter how awkward it makes the sentence.
This is perverse, because while Latin is a heavily inflected language, in which cases are achieved by changing the ends of words, English is not an inflected language. It usually changes cases by using additional words, such as "to", "on", "from", before the verb.
So by applying a rule inferred from an inflected language, Latin, and applying to an a very different language, English (with its roots in Saxon) , we finished up with a nonsense rule.

Example: "To boldly go where no man has gone before."

How the pedants laughed at this sonorous introduction to Star Trek. "Split infinitive!" they hooted in derision.
Yet is is good English, making subtle use of the English language's sensitivity to word order to make an equally subtle point. (Latin is not notable for sensitivity to word order).
The formally correct "To go boldly where no man has gone before" is weaker on two grounds.
First, the positioning of 'boldly' in the Star Trek version strengthens "boldly"; and boldness is surely the core of Star Trek. Second, the first words are in iambic metre: "to BOLDly GO", while the weaker "correct" version is rather broken backed.
As an opening sentence it is not in the same class as the famous opening line of Rebecca, all iambic: "Last NIGHT I DREAMED I WENT to MANderLEY aGAIN", but it still sticks in the memory.
A 21st century Star Trek writer might have made it "To BOLDly GO where NONE have GONE beFORE" and got it bang on the iambic money, and gender-free at that.
It has been argued, very soundly I think, that there is no equivalent of the Latin infinitive case in English. The so-called infinitive, eg, "to go", is just a verbal phrase.

Why shouldn't we start a sentence with 'and' or 'but'?

Because, pedants will tell you, 'and' and 'but' are conjunctions, joining words, and are used to joins parts of a sentence together. That is, a grammarian categorises a word, and then demands that it be used only according to category he just assigned it.
But writers have started sentences with 'and' and 'but' for centuries, and still do, and will continue to do so. 'And' and 'but' are indeed conjunctions; but they often connect ideas, or even trains of thought, not just parts of sentences. So the end of one chapter in a book might be followed the next chapter which starts with "But..." because the sentence does indeed connect, in some way, with the developments in the previous chapter, and serves to emphasises the connection.
The same sort of categorising problems arise with nouns, verbs and adjectives. In the very flexible and rather unruly English language, any noun may easily be a verb and even an adjective as well, without any change in spelling. English words do not lend themselves easily to the sort of neat noun/verb/adjective categories found in Latin. English words multi-task and mutate with an exuberant freedom that would horrify Cicero.

Don't end a sentence with a preposition.

Because it is a preposition, dummy, and must come first. That's what "pre-position" means.
Seriously.
That's the only possible origin of this "rule". And it's absurd.
It is another example of a class of words being allocated a name, and then demanding that they behave according to the name.
Ending sentences with prepositions is commonplace, even universal, in English. And that's because prepositions, like so many English words, multi-task; and also because English is full of implied ends to sentences, which are never spoken or written because in context they are superfluous.

Johnny put his gloves on. [his hands].
Johnny looked up. [at his mother]
Johnny went in. [the house]

Don't confuse who and whom.

'Who' and 'whom' are useful distinctions in sentences involving the actions of two or more people where the use of 'who' alone could be misleading or ambiguous (just the sort of sneaky verbal confusion Agatha Christie was apt to use to mislead readers).
In spoken English 'whom' is never used, not because spoken English is sloppy but because 'whom' is not necessary in speech. Even my huge 5,000 page 2-volume A Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a condensation of the vast 13-volume original, agrees that it is not used in speech.
This is an example of a grammar rule (or is it a vocabulary rule or a bit of both?) which really is from English and not borrowed from Latin. It dates back to Old English when "who" and "whom" were "hwa" and "hwam". Needless to say, we no longer speak Old English.
(If you are a fiction writer who has a character using "whom" in direct speech, he or she must be a pompous ass. Han Solo would never use it.)
Reminds me of an interview with actress Joan Crawford, who famously replied to a reporter's question with a freezing "Whom is kidding whom?"
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#2  Pulpmeister 06-10-2015, 12:37 AM
i wonder if the moderator could correct the blunder in the thread title: It's a cold morning here, and my fingers are clumsy.
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#3  gmw 06-10-2015, 01:47 AM
I'd vote for: "To BOLDly GO where NONE have GONE beFORE".

Thanks for the post, I enjoyed it very much.
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#4  Dr. Drib 06-10-2015, 05:58 AM
Quote Pulpmeister
i wonder if the moderator could correct the blunder in the thread title: It's a cold morning here, and my fingers are clumsy.

[sigh]. If you insist.

But I think it's funny. A little bit of humor for such a dry subject.

And this sentence starts with 'and'.

Oh, alright.

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#5  ATDrake 06-10-2015, 12:53 PM
Fun fact: my Collins Engelsk-Norsk Ordbok/English-Norwegian Dictionary has as the example sentence under the "boldly, adv" entry:

Quote
…to boldly go where no man has gone before … å gå dristig or frimodig der hvor ingen mann hadde gått før
While I didn't exactly buy it for that reason alone, if I'd already had a bunch of Norwegian dictionaries prior, I'd still have picked it up for sheer awesomeness just because.

Aside from that, most prescriptive grammar is incorrect and can be blamed on people with too much time on their hands and too little linguistics knowledge of how their own language actually works, who then spread it around to others such, unfortunately.

Sometimes blamed very specifically.

Prepositions not ending a sentence? That's the fault of John Dryden (Wikipedia, Motivated Grammar blogpost write-up), noted and influential poet and playwright whom you may know from his pithy "hostages to fortune" remark, who thought that his generation's usage of language was way cooler and would be longer-enduring than those outdated wordsmiths Shakespeare and Chaucer (ahahaha… so wrong).

Split infinitives? A number of fingers to point, but apparently mainly the work of Henry Alford (Wikipedia, write-up on this from one of the co-authors of the Cambridge University Press' A Student's Introduction to English Grammar), another poet who should have stuck to poetry instead of helping to make the Queen's English clunkier and less lyrical.

And we have Robert Lowth (Wikipedia), another poet-ish (well, professor of poetry-ish) guy, who went and enabled them all.

Incidentally, the entire who/whom thing is because of the subject/object case distinction and it really is a real grammar rule that's descriptive, not prescriptive (except in cases of genuinely incorrect usage).

It's just that the object-only "whom" inflection has atrophied its ending in favour of becoming object-"who", but it's still an objective case ending and the misuse comes from when people mistakenly use object-"whom" when they mean subject-"who"*.

Long story short: the easy way to remember when to use whom if you want to (which incidentally I personally do, and in actual speech too, though YMMV) is in situations where you would use "him" and not "he" (and if you can't tell those apart, then I can no longer help you).

Otherwise, you can't go wrong with using object-"who" for all informal usages if you don't feel like visibly (and audibly) distinguishing it from subject-"who".

* There's actually a case descriptive word† for when the same form is used consistently for both subject and object in certain circumstances across a particular language, but that's not what's happening in the English language.

† And IIRC, it's "ergative-absolutive" (Wikipedia), not that you actually wanted to know.
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#6  eschwartz 06-10-2015, 11:55 PM
As far as I am concerned, well, I don't actually know a lot about grammar. I gave up on it and flew by in English class based on the strength of my vocabulary and because I was still smarter than most of my classmates.

I just don't get the silly rules at all. Having read a lot, I can speak quite well, thankyouverymuch, but I would be hard-pressed to name most of the rules behind why.

I still don't know what an infinitive is, and am studiously avoiding every opportunity to find out.
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#7  Rizla 06-11-2015, 02:54 AM
@Pulpmeister

Well said. And well said, again.

I knew these rules were wrong, but your details on the causes (i.e. Latin) I didn't know.

You state that Latin is insensitive to word order. I thought Latin was big on cases (word order) in order to change meaning (like German). But then, my understanding of Latin-derived languages is that they don't seem to use cases, so I imagine you're right. I read a primer on Latin once, which is where I got the (mistaken?) idea.

It's sort of fun and scary to see the ensconced grammarians on writing forums speak with great authority on grammar, when clearly they don't have a clue what they're talking about.
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#8  Rizla 06-11-2015, 03:00 AM
Quote eschwartz
As far as I am concerned, well, I don't actually know a lot about grammar. I gave up on it and flew by in English class based on the strength of my vocabulary and because I was still smarter than most of my classmates.

I just don't get the silly rules at all. Having read a lot, I can speak quite well, thankyouverymuch, but I would be hard-pressed to name most of the rules behind why.

I still don't know what an infinitive is, and am studiously avoiding every opportunity to find out.
English is like that. It's an easy language. Try writing in French. In any case, it pays to understand the nuts-and-bolts if you want to write in any formal capacity. Look at the horror that is so many self-pub authors who adhere to your reasoning. Then there are those who will tell you how to spell "potatoe." Amazon has a lot to answer for
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#9  cromag 06-11-2015, 03:42 AM
Quote Rizla
@Pulpmeister

Well said. And well said, again.

I knew these rules were wrong, but your details on the causes (i.e. Latin) I didn't know.

You state that Latin is insensitive to word order. I thought Latin was big on cases (word order) in order to change meaning (like German). But then, my understanding of Latin-derived languages is that they don't seem to use cases, so I imagine you're right. I read a primer on Latin once, which is where I got the (mistaken?) idea.

It's sort of fun and scary to see the ensconced grammarians on writing forums speak with great authority on grammar, when clearly they don't have a clue what they're talking about.
It has been a long, lo-ooo-ong time since I took high school Latin, but Latin doesn't depend on word order for meaning.

"Amo te." and "Te amo." mean the same thing (I'm pretty sure) -- "I love you." Since "Amo" is the active, indicative, first person singular, present tense form of the verb that means "love," and "te" is the second person, singular pronoun in the accusative case (it receives the action of the verb, whether it precedes or follows that verb) that means "you."

I'm working off memory here, and leaving myself wide open to correction/ridicule.

I say this knowing that Mr. Cork, my old high school Latin teacher, and Jesuit drop-out, is watching me from somewhere.
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#10  cromag 06-11-2015, 03:43 AM
I tend to be more particular about grammar for my narratives, but I'm a lot more flexible with dialog. "Whom do you trust?" is grammatically correct, but none of my characters would ever say that.
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