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Action Grammar: Fast, No-Hassle Answers on Everyday Usage and Punctuation

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Excerpt

Chapter 1

Five Lies Your English Teacher Told You

That sure is a great school. It's practical. They don't teach no goddamn grammar there.

a Kansas Farmer, quoted by Nelson Antrim Crawford, c. 1914

Well, I'm exaggerating. Your English teacher didn't tell you lies. But she or he probably taught you rules of English that are no more.

Were you taught any of the "rules" below? If you were, read this chapter.

1. You may not start a sentence with because.

2. You may not start a sentence with and or but.

3. Sometimes periods and commas go inside the quotation marks and sometimes they go outside; it depends on the sentence.

4. You may not end a sentence with a preposition.

5. You may not split an infinitive.

Here is the most up-to-date information on these issues.

1. You may not start a sentence with because.

You certainly may. This much-believed "rule" has never been found in any book of grammar!

Let's examine:

I made $100,000 on a stock because I got a great tip.

Because I got a great tip, I made $100,000 on a stock.

Both of these sentences are absolutely, positively correct.

If this is true, why do you and I remember being told, in no uncertain terms, that you can't start a sentence with because? The answer is this: Teachers in primary grades wanted to instill in their students the habit of writing and speaking in full sentences, not sentence fragments.

If your teacher asked, "Why did you make $100,000 on a stock?" and you answered, "Because I got a great tip," she would most likely say, "You can't start a sentence with because." What she should have said was, "Please make that a complete sentence." Because I got a great tip is a cliff-hanger; it's a sentence fragment and needs to be finished. But instead, she just said, "You can't start a sentence with because."

Indeed, the teacher told you a white lie. As a result, people write wordy, awkward sentences like this:

Due to the fact that I got a great tip, I made $100,000 on a stock.

[You'll find more about due to and because on page 199.]

2. You may not start a sentence with and or but.

False. Good writers do it all the time. Take a look at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or any other major publication; you'll see many sentences that start with and, but, and even so!

The same thing that happened to because happened to and, but, and so. Your teachers were afraid you would write sentences like these:

I look forward to seeing you next week. And completing the contract by the first of July.

And completing the contract by the first of July is not a sentence and can't stand alone.

However, to write And I hope we can complete the contract by the first of July would be perfectly fine. This starts with and, yet it contains a complete sentence: I hope we can complete the contract by the first of July.

Of course, many other correct sentences could have been written to communicate the same thought. Here are some:

1. I look forward to seeing you next week and completing the contract by the first of July.

2. I look forward to seeing you next week; I hope we can complete the contract by the first of July.

3. I look forward to seeing you next week, and I hope we can complete the contract by the first of July.

4. I look forward to seeing you next week. I hope we can complete the contract by the first of July.

3. Sometimes periods and commas go inside the quotation marks and sometimes they go outside; it depends on the sentence.

No — well, at least not in America. In the United States, periods and commas always go inside quotation marks. That's our rule, and it is followed scrupulously by all professional writers.

Therefore, all of the following are correct:

1. The vice president said, "We will have to review our objectives for the project." (Here the quoted material is a complete sentence.)

2. Although the letter addressed to my supervisor was stamped "Personal and Confidential," I took it to my office and read it. (Here the quoted material is just three words. The comma is required to indicate a pause.)

3. My manager described his assistant's behavior as "inappropriate." (The quoted material is just one word.)

Do I hear an objection? Did you say our rule makes no sense? After all, in example two the letter was stamped "Personal and Confidential" and not "Personal and Confidential," — and therefore, you ask, shouldn't the comma come after the quotation marks? Well, I agree with you, but that is not the rule.

And what about the third example? Only one word is quoted. Does the period still go inside? The answer is yes. This is the American system. The rest of the English-speaking world uses the more logical system, as do publications of international bodies such as the United Nations. The only Americans who do not follow the American style in this matter are lawyers.

For more information on this issue, see Rule 10, page 72.

4. You may not end a sentence with a preposition.

Much has been written on this topic — in fact, too much has been written about it. The story is told that Winston Churchill was once criticized for using a sentence that ended with a preposition. He was angry; he responded: "That is the kind of English up with which I will not put." His meaning is clear: Don't rework a sentence into a totally awkward one to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Not ending a sentence with a preposition is a guideline, not a rule.

Yes, generally speaking, you should not end sentences with prepositions because they are dull, weak words (words like of, with, to, at, in). You should end sentences with powerful words. Notice the difference:

This is the report I want to talk with you about.

I want to talk with you about this report.

The second sentence is clearer and more forceful.

However, don't follow this rule slavishly or you may end up, as the prime minister pointed out, with a sentence that's awkward and confusing:

This is the report about which I want to talk with you.

5. You may not split an infinitive.

An infinitive is the word to plus a verb, for example, to review, to explain, to understand. In the following sentence, the infinitive, to review, is split by the word carefully.

Frowned upon:

Her responsibility was to carefully review the data.

Favored:

Her responsibility was to review the data carefully.

Do not split an infinitive unless not doing so leads to a confusing or awkward sentence. In the following examples, the sentence with the split infinitive is preferable to the unsplit ones because it's the clearest; it puts the emphasis in the right spot.

Clearest and best:

I would like you to personally supervise the clerk.

Awkward:

I would like you personally to supervise the clerk.

Okay:

I would like you to supervise the clerk personally.

Copyright © 1995 by Joanne Feierman

Product Details

ISBN:
9780684807805
Author:
Feierman, Joanne
Publisher:
Touchstone Books
Location:
New York :
Subject:
General
Subject:
Reference
Subject:
Grammar
Subject:
English language
Subject:
Rhetoric
Subject:
Punctuation
Subject:
English language -- Usage -- Handbooks, manuals, etc.
Subject:
Grammar & Punctuation
Subject:
English language -- Grammar.
Subject:
English language -- Usage.
Subject:
Reference-Rhetoric
Edition Description:
Trade Paperback
Series Volume:
no. 77
Publication Date:
19950931
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Yes
Pages:
256
Dimensions:
7.5 x 5 in 8.89 oz

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