Modern Grammar Rules to Show Your Grammar Nazi Friends
Like the actual Nazis, the beliefs of some hardcore grammar Nazis are outdated and need to be left behind in the dustbins of history. English is a living language that evolves, even if the evolution sometimes means going back to its roots (we're sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere). Here are some modern grammar rules for the modern man.
Who told us not to split infinitives, anyway? There actually isn't a rule against it, and everybody uses split infinitives in everyday English. An oft-cited example comes from Star Trek: To boldly go where no man has gone before. According to the no-split-infinitives rule, that should be To go boldly where no man has gone before.
The trouble seems to have started around the 19th century, when grammarians decided that, since there were no split infinitives in Latin, that there should be none in English. The world ignored those troublemakers then, and we're going to ignore them now.
Admittedly, you’ll find that this is still a hot topic among professional copyeditors. Members of the old guard firmly believe that you can't say emails, in the same way that you’re not supposed to use mails when referring to more than one piece of mail. But we fully support the use of emails, and here’s why.
Mail is recognized as what’s called a “mass noun”—something that can’t be counted, and thus cannot be pluralized. This is why we never say “I received a mail from you”; we would say “I received a piece of mail,” or “I received a letter” instead.
But we do say “I received an email from you,” because email is a counting noun that can be pluralized. This may not have always been the case, because the word email is short for “electronic mail.” But email has long since entered common usage as a word in itself, evolving away from its old form as a mass noun. Many other words have evolved in this way, notes Stanford professor of linguistics Arnold Zwicky.
Most sticklers for good grammar are irritated by the growing use of they (along with them, themselves, and their) as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. For example: A good employee is valuable to their boss. To these sticklers, this grammar crime is an affront to plural nature of they in the name of political correctness.
Since when have we used they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun? Since the 14th century, that's when. Champions of the singular they also like to point to this sentence by poet Emily Dickinson, proving that it was in wide use by 1881:
"Almost anyone under the circumstances would have doubted if [the letter] were theirs, or indeed if they were themself."
Perhaps those who are most bothered by the singular they are those who were taught to use he or him to stand in for a subject of indeterminate gender, but that rule has fallen out of favor as we all learn to be more gender-sensitive. Everyone should get with the times—and by "the times," we really mean "since ever."
As with the "rule" against splitting infinitives, the rule against ending sentences with a preposition stems from the time when grammarians thought that English should conform to the rules of Latin. But, since English is a living language that draws influence from many other languages, this rule is widely considered archaic, just like the sentences that would follow this construction: "In which book do I find that rule?" you may ask. And we say that it's perfectly correct to ask, "Which book is that stupid rule in?"
Who says you should only use one space after a period? Everyone. Typographers, layout artists, editors, software designers.
Two spaces after a period went out the window along with manual typewriters, which is what the rule was designed for in the first place. The two-spaces rule was there to offset (typesetting joke alert) the clunky monospacing of manual typewriters. We, however, have been enjoying the use of proportional spacing since the invention of the electric typewriter. Using two spaces instead of one diminishes readability in modern systems, so please do your reader a favor and stick to a single space when starting a new sentence.