Zombie Grammar

I’d like to welcome production editor Heidi Hogg to the Lerner blog today. Not only is Heidi a whiz at book layout and design, but she’s a grammar maven too! Here’s Heidi on what she cleverly dubs “zombie grammar rules.”

9780761386339_p0_v1_s114x166 It seems like zombies are everywhere. There’s the romantic comedy film Warm Bodies. AMC’s television series The Walking Dead is just wrapping up its third season. The CDC has even launched a zombie preparedness campaign. And the recently published Zombie Makers (cover shown) from Millbrook Press illustrates that some zombielike creatures actually exist in nature and aren’t confined to the pages of science fiction books. (Shudder!)

Today I’d like to talk about something truly horrifying: zombie grammar rules. What are zombie grammar rules? They are misconceptions about the English language that, for whatever reason, refuse to die. Here are some examples.

1. You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. This gem can be traced back to a seventeenth-century poet. When John Dryden criticized the authors of the sixteenth century (which included Shakespeare, by the way), he complained particularly about their use of the terminal preposition. Why did Dryden think this was such a problem? You see, grammarians at that time admired the beauty of Latin. And Latin doesn’t allow for such a construction. While English has successfully borrowed bits and pieces from other languages, trying to shoehorn this Latin trait into English grammar wasn’t such a great idea. Try rewriting “He went right by” so it doesn’t end in a preposition. The result isn’t pretty.

2. You shouldn’t start a sentence with however. Blame Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style for this silliness. William Strunk believed that you shouldn’t start a sentence with however when you mean nevertheless or but. His reason? We’re not sure. E. B. White, who was hired to revised Strunk’s original 1918 manuscript for publication in 1959, said Strunk “had a number of likes and dislikes that were almost as whimsical as the choice of a necktie, yet he made them seem utterly convincing.” The bottom line? Don’t strangle yourself trying to conform to one man’s style preferences.

3. You shouldn’t split an infinitive. Nineteenth-century grammarians are responsible for creating this fantasy—one that’s also rooted in a fondness for Latin. In Latin, it’s impossible to split an infinitive. Grammarians in the 1800s reasoned that English would be more elegant if it didn’t have split infinitives either. There’s just one problem: full infinitives consist of two words in English (e.g., to go). Imagine if James T. Kirk had said, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” The Enterprise might have never left the solar system with such weak construction.

As you can see, we can trace most zombie grammar rules back to well-meaning but misguided grammar figures from long ago. But why are these myths still around? I can’t say for certain, but perhaps in this case, we’re the zombies. We’ve mindlessly repeated these rules we first heard in elementary school as fact without questioning their validity or confirming their veracity.

Don’t be a zombie! Consult your dictionaries and style and usage guides (preferably ones from this century). And the next time you encounter one of these nonsensical rules, get out your metaphorical literary hatchet, baseball bat, or what have you, and strike down these myths until they’re dead instead of undead.