If you no longer think it’s wrong to split an infinitive, or stand a sentence with ‘And’, or end a sentence with a preposition, do you still hold back in your writing because some of your readers might think you’ve made a mistake?
Should you care that they’ll think the worse of you, and stop reading your book or, worse, not buy your next one?
These thoughts were prompted by my attendance at this year’s English Grammar Day at the British Library on 3 July. It has a focus towards teachers, but is an excellent annual occasion for anyone interested in grammar. A message in recent years has been that several of what we thought were rules of grammar simply aren’t – they’re either plain wrong or just preferences of usage.
I never believed in the ‘no preposition at the end of a sentence’ rule, because of Churchill’s famous demolition of that ‘rule’, and also having learned German at school and seeing how in that cousin language it is in fact mandatory to end many sentences with prepositions. But it has taken me till now to accept that it’s wholly acceptable to gaily split an infinitive. And that starting a sentence with a conjunction is fine if it suits what you want to say.
The problem comes with your less enlightened readers. Will they mark you down?
I recommend the English Grammar Day – it costs only a few pounds, so look it up on the BL website (www.bl.uk). To show you the range of subjects covered, this year the speakers were Devyani Sharma, of Queen Mary University of London, on the development of English across the world, eg in India and Singapore; Lucy Dipper, of City University in London, on ‘Grammar in the speech and language therapy clinic’; Marcello Giovanelli, of Aston University, on ‘Knowing about language: what, why and how?’; Eleanor Trafford, who teaches English at Bradford Grammar School, on ‘Getting your clause into grammar in the secondary classroom’; the splendidly argumentative Geoff Pullum, of Edinburgh University, whose talk was entitled’ ‘If doctors knew medical science like writing critics know grammar, you’d be dead’; and Oliver Kamm (pictured), who writes in the Times on grammar every Saturday , on ‘Grammar guidance in the media: the search for certainty’.
The day finished with an ‘Any Questions’ –style panel discussion chaired by the always entertaining expert on Jane Austen John Mullan.
One of Geoff Pullum’s themes was that many of the so-called rules of grammar are the inventions of ill-informed people. Oliver Kamm argued that the persistence of these rules is largely the fault of ill-informed pundits in the media.
This was all liberating. But it doesn’t answer the question of whether the writer should worry about those less liberated readers …