Do You Follow Grammar “Rules” You Don’t Understand?

Editor’s Corner

Picture writing a rough draftThose of you who use social media are used to seeing comments from sticklers who object to any deviation from the grammar rules they learned. The following sentences would not likely pass their inspection. Can you tell why?

Sentence 1. At the donut shop she had trouble getting her order out.
Sentence 2. Hopefully, none of the donuts are gone.
Sentence 3. But etiquette forced me to share the donuts.

People who are fuzzy on the rules might fail sentence 1 for ending with a preposition, sentence 2 for beginning with hopefully and treating none as a plural instead of a singular subject, and sentence 3 for beginning with but and containing a passive.

The problem is, however, that they would be wrong on every count.

Sentence 1. Although out often serves as a preposition {He hurried out the door}, in our sentence it is an adverb. And in any case, ending a sentence with a preposition is perfectly correct grammar (as was starting this sentence with and—in case you were tempted to point that out).

Sentence 2. At some point in recent grammar history the rule that hopefully cannot be used as a sentence adverb became popular in spite of there being no basis for it. We accept other sentence adverbs that are identical in usage (actually, seriously). Why pick on hopefully? Similarly, the idea that none cannot be plural has crept into general acceptance. Linguists and lexicographers find no support for this rule, however, and authoritative dictionaries list none as both singular (for “not a one” or “no part of”) and plural (for “not any”).

None of the pizza is left.
None of us is to blame or None of us are to blame.
None of the pizzas were left.

Sentence 3. By now you’ve probably guessed that, like and, but may begin a sentence without violating any rule of grammar. And despite appearances, forced is active, not passive. It’s good to weed out use of the passive when it is weak and colorless or when it hides the actor {Mistakes were made}. Passives can have plenty of power, however {My notebook had been shredded and set on fire in the night}, and actives can hide a perpetrator {The notebook burned before I could save it}. The point here is that it’s more effective to monitor the amount of energy and agency in your prose than to simply outlaw the passive—especially if you can’t actually identify a passive when you see one. Even the beloved grammarians Strunk & White say that the passive is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary” (The Elements of Style, 18).

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t matter whether a rule we learned isn’t really a rule; if we think our readers will call it an error, we don’t want to allow it. The problem is knowing whether a usage or construction has become acceptable yet to our expected audience. Editors are wise to be conservative. Unfortunately, this means that copyeditors are responsible for perpetuating a lot of nonrules—and annoying writers with what they see as needless restrictions. The best editors keep abreast of language trends and are able to judge when the time is right to abandon a long discredited rule.

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I welcome your comments below! There is a quick hoop or two to jump through in order to register, but after that, you can comment whenever you visit, without further hoop-jumping.

(And if you’re tempted to defend any of those so-called rules, please be sure to include a link to an authoritative reference work that supports your view. Maybe you’ll convince me!)

Photo: Performance installation by William Forsythe and Kendall Thomas, United Nations Office at Geneva.

Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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24 thoughts on “Do You Follow Grammar “Rules” You Don’t Understand?

  1. This is a great point, Carol. I have vivid memories of being coached to avoid certain words and phrases in certain times and places without justification. Using “and” or “but” to begin a sentence was blasphemy unless you were writing dialogue. I even remember a teacher who made all students avoid the use of “it” in all their compositions (although she did emphasize that it was a teaching technique more than anything else). It’s interesting to observe how, as writers age, they keep these hard and fast “rules” in mind. And for some reason these conventions stick without warrant. But, as you mentioned, if the writer perceives it as a rule, it essentially becomes one.

  2. Pingback: Grammar rules | The Proof Angel

  3. I’ve always thought the issue with using “hopefully” as an adverb in that context is that it would literally means “full of hope,” not “I am hopeful that,” which is what it is intended to mean in that sentence. Comments?

    • I agree with your understanding of why some object to this usage of “hopefully,” however I don’t see a difference between “full of hope” and your “hopeful.”

      Personally, I would object to the sample sentence only if the intended meaning was “I hope none of the donuts are gone,” and hope was being used in the sense of “desire without expectation.”

  4. Thanks Carol. I will check out the Linguist’s Corner too. Currently, I am reading your delightful book The Subversive Copy Editor. I had the pleasure of meeting you and getting it signed at the EAC Conference in Toronto.

  5. Carol, it is a delight to read your blog. When we talk of “none,” I don’t think there should be any room for confusion because the verb has to agree with the pronoun (singular referent or plural referent). However, can you please explain the difference in meaning of the following sentences?

    None of us is to blame.

    None of us are to blame.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Vivek. Oddly, there is no difference in meaning in the two sentences. As for understanding the deeper grammar of how none came to be flexible in its singular/plural agreement, well, perhaps there’s a “Linguist’s Corner” where you can ask! – Carol

  6. Aw-w, I’d jump throughhoops anyway. It’s surely rude of me, but I have developed this kind of irritable eye, to see and point out Jacobemet’s wandering (I guess it is) apostrophe.

  7. Shouldn’t there be a comma after “At the donut shop”? At the donut shop, she had trouble etc. Per CMoS 6.36, I’m pretty sure?

  8. As long as the flow isn’t interrupted and the sentence is comprehensible, then why not break the rules? It’s hard enough for writer’s to find their voice without being burdened by grammatical restriction.

  9. I’m so over the subjunctive. Seldom is it used and I find I’m constantly correcting “if it is” to “if it were”. That’s one I think is soon to fall away from the rules as at this point I’m delighted just to see someone use it properly.

  10. Hi Carol. I just discovered you two days ago, and the more I hear and read from you, the more I like you. I have already ordered your book. I love that your primary concern is the reader rather than the writer, the editor or the rules.

    One small point: In the explanation of the third example, you refer to the verb tense “has forced”, but in the example itself, it is only “forced”.

    By the way, I’m Canadian, and we have different rules for punctuation with quotation marks.

    • Thank you for commenting! (And for pointing out the typo. I made the correction.) Maybe sometime we can post about Canadian, British, and “logical” punctuation. It’s quite a topic in itself. – Carol

    • Weighing in to provide some variety: I’m a Canadian editor, and at my house we always place closing quotation marks after commas and periods. Every house I’ve worked for has followed that American convention. But I don’t doubt that things may be different outside of book publishing!

    • No, we don’t, LC. We use the same rules of punctuation with quotation marks in Canada as they do in the US. You’re using British style in your comment, not Canadian style.

  11. At my first editing job I was required to impose all the fuddy-duddy “rules” you cite, and many more. As soon as I moved on, I happily began to use “hopefully” whenever it was called for. Verbal deliverance! Thanks for helping dispel people’s anxieties about the old hobgoblins.

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