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10 grammar rules you can forget: how to stop

worrying and write proper
Guardian Style Guide author David Marsh set out to master perfect grammatical English but discovered
that 'correct' isn't always best. Here are the 10 grammar laws you no longer need to check

'To go boldly?' 'Negatve, Captan, t's ne to splt an nntve.' Photograph: Cne Text/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

David Marsh
Monday 30 September 2013 17.44BST

very s tuat on n wh ch language s used text ng your mates, ask ng for a pay r se,
compos ng a small ad, mak ng a speech, draft ng a w ll, wr t ng up an exper ment, pray ng,
rapp ng, or any other has ts own convent ons. You wouldn't expect a pol t c an be ng
nterv ewed by K rsty Wark about the economy to start quot ng Ludacr s: "I keep my m nd on
my money, money on my m nd; but you'se a hell of a d stract on when you shake your beh nd."
Although t m ght make Newsn ght more enterta n ng.
Th s renders the concept of what s "correct" more than a s mple matter of r ght and wrong.
What s correct n a tweet m ght not be n an essay; no s ngle reg ster of Engl sh s r ght for
every occas on. Updat ng your status on Facebook s nst nct ve for anyone who can read and
wr te to a bas c level; for more formal commun cat on, the convent ons are harder to grasp and
th s s why so many people fret about the "rules" of grammar.

10 things people worry about too much




1 To innitive and beyond

Georey K Pullum, a scar ly erud te l ngu st cs professor and, unless th s s an nternet hoax,
keyboard player n the 1960s w th Geno Wash ngton & the Ram Jam Band calls them "zomb e
rules: though dead, they shamble m ndlessly on " And none more so than the one that says
the part cle to and the n n t ve form of the verb should not be separated, as n Star Trek's
eloquent m ss on statement "to boldly go where no man has gone before".
Stubbornly to res st spl tt ng n n t ves can sound awkward or, worse, amb guous: "He oered
personally to guarantee the loan that the Cl ntons needed to buy the r house" makes t unclear
whether the oer, or the guarantee, was personal. Adverbs should go where they sound most
natural, often mmed ately after the to: to boldly go, to personally guarantee. Th s "rule" s not
just half-baked: t's fully baked, w th a fr ed egg and sl ce of p neapple on top. But remarkably
pers stent.


2 The things one has to put up with

Prepos t ons relate one word or phrase to another, typ cally to express place (to the o ce, n
the net) or t me (before the ood, after the goldrush). They are followed by an object: from me
to you.
In the 17th century, John Dryden, dec d ng that end ng a sentence w th a prepos t on was "not
elegant" because you couldn't do t n Lat n, set about ru n ng some of h s best prose by
rewr t ng t so that "the end he a med at" became "the end at wh ch he a med", and so on. L ke
not spl tt ng the n n t ve, th s became a "rule" when taught by grammar ans nuenced by
Lat n.
Ignore t. As HW Fowler observed: "The power of say ng 'people worth talk ng to' nstead of
'people w th whom t s worth wh le to talk' s not one to be l ghtly surrendered."
3 Don't get in a bad mood overthe subjunctive
The subjunct ve s a verb form (techn cally, "mood") express ng hypothes s, typ cally to
nd cate that someth ng s be ng demanded, proposed, mag ned, or ns sted: "he demanded
that she res gn", and so on. You can spot t n the th rd person s ngular of the present tense




(res gn nstead of res gns) and n the forms be and were of the verb to be: f she were [rather
than was] honest, she would qu t.
The wr ter Somerset Maugham, who n 1949 announced "the subjunct ve mood s n ts death
throes", m ght be surpr sed to see my son Fredd e's bookshelf, wh ch conta ns If I Were a P g
(Jellycat Books, 2008).
The subjunct ve s more common n Amer can than Br t sh Engl sh, often n formal or poet c
contexts n the song If I Were a R ch Man, for example. It's not true, however, that Dav d and
Don Was came under pressure from language pur sts to change the name of the r band to Were
(Not Was).
M sus ng the subjunct ve s worse than not us ng t at all. Many wr ters scatter "weres" about as
f "was" were or, ndeed, was go ng out of fash on. The journal st S mon Heer s a fan of the
subjunct ve, recommend ng such usages as " f I be wrong, I shall be defeated". So be t f you
want to sound l ke a p rate.

Mck Jagger: can't get no satsfacton. Photograph: Ray Green

4 Negative, captain
When M ck Jagger rst sang "I can't get no sat sfact on", t was not uncommon to hear the
older generat on w tter on l ke th s: "He says he can't get no sat sfact on, wh ch log cally means
he can get some sat sfact on."
But wh le a double negat ve may make a pos t ve when you mult ply m nus three by m nus
two, language doesn't work n such a log cal way: mult ple negat ves add emphas s. L terature
and mus c abound w th them. Chaucer used a tr ple "He nevere yet no v leynye ne sayde"
and Ian Dury gave us: "Just 'cos I a n't never 'ad, no, noth ng worth hav ng, never ever, never
Not Standard Engl sh, t's true, but no nat ve Engl sh speaker s l kely to m sunderstand, any
more than when Jane Austen produced the eloquent double negat ve "there was none too poor
or remote not to feel an nterest".
5 Between my souvenirs
I was taught that between appl es only to two th ngs, and among should be used for more than
two a rare example of Mrs B rtles, my rst grammar teacher, gett ng t wrong. Between s
appropr ate when the relat onsh p s rec procal, however many part es are nvolved: an
agreement between the countr es of the EU, for example. Among belongs to collect ve
relat onsh ps, as n votes shared among pol t cal part es, or the tems among Paul Wh teman's
souven rs n the 1927 song.




Wh le I am on the subject, t's "between you and me", not "between you and I". It's probably
unfa r, though qu te good fun, to blame the Queen; people have heard "my husband and I" and
perhaps assume "and I" s always r ght. It s when part of the subject ("my husband and I would
love to see you at the palace") but not when part of the object ("the Queen oered my husband
and me cucumber sandw ches").
6 Bored of Tunbridge Wells
Trad t onal sts say t should be bored by or bored w th, but not bored of, a "rule" cheerfully
gnored, I would say, by anyone under about 40. And good luck to them: there s no
just cat on for t. I have, however, managed to come up w th a l ttle d st nct on worth
preserv ng: compare "bored w th Tunbr dge Wells" (a person who nds Tunbr dge Wells
bor ng) w th "bored of Tunbr dge Wells" (a bored person who happens to l ve there, perhaps a
ne ghbour of "d sgusted of Tunbr dgeWells").
7 Don't fear the gerund
Georey W llans and Ronald Searle's gu de to l fe at St Custard's school, How to Be Topp,
features a cartoon n wh ch a gerund attacks some peaceful pronouns, but t s noth ng to be
afra d of. A gerund s a verb end ng n - ng that acts as a noun: I l ke sw mm ng, smok ng s bad
for you, and so on.
The tr cky b t s when someone tells you about the rule that, as w th other nouns, you have to
use a possess ve pronoun "she objected to my sw mm ng". Most normal people say "she
objected to me sw mm ng" so I wouldn't worry about th s. You rarely see the possess ve form
n newspapers, for example. Announc ng "I trust too much n my team's be ng able to str ng a
few w ns together" sounds pompous.
8 And another thing
Conjunct ons, as the name suggests, jo n th ngs together. Th s prompted generat ons of
Engl sh teachers to dr ll nto the r pup ls, nclud ng me, that to start a sentence w th and, but,
because or however was wrong. But th s s another sh bboleth. And I am sure W ll am Blake
("And d d those feet n anc ent t mes?") and the Beatles ("Because the world s round t turns
me on") would back me on th s.
9 None sense
A sure s gn of a pedant s that, under the mpress on that none s an abbrev at on of not one,
they w ll ns st on say ng th ngs l ke "none of them has turned up". Why, when I set out on the
road to grammat cal perfect on I m ght even have argued th s myself. But the "rule" that none
always takes a s ngular verb s, alas, another myth. Plural s not only acceptable, but often
sounds more natural: "None of the current squad are good enough to play n the
Champ onsh p." Henry F eld ng wrote n Tom Jones: "None are more gnorant than those
learned Pedants, whose L ves have been ent rely consumed n Colleges, and among Books."
10 Try and try again
Try to has trad t onally been regarded as more "correct" and try and as a colloqu al sm or
worse. The former s certa nly more formal, and far more common n wr t ng, but t's the other
way round when t comes to speech. Those who regard try and as an "Amer can sm" w ll be
d sappo nted to learn that t s much more w dely used n the UK than n the US. Somet mes
there s a good case for try and for example, f you want to avo d repeat ng the word to n a
sentence such as: "We're really go ng to try and w n th s one."
As Bart S mpson sa d: "I can't prom se I'll try, but I'll try to try."

Five things people should worry about more




Who or whom? The Ghostbusters know whch call to make

Photograph: Snap/Rex Features

1 To who it may concern

The use of whom the object ve form of who s dy ng out, espec ally n speech. It sounds
aected and st . Hyper-correct use of whom for who s common, as n Graham Greene's The
Qu et Amer can: "There was a b g man whom [s c] I th nk was an htel er from Phnom Penh
and a French g rl I'd never seen before."
To avo d th s, mentally replace who or whom w th the th rd person pronoun: f you get a
subject he, she, t or they then who s correct; for an object h m, her or them whom s
r ght. In the Greene example t would be "I th nk he was an htel er" not "I th nk h m was an
htel er" so who, not whom, s correct.
When John Donne wrote "for whom the bell tolls" and Bo D ddley asked "who do you love?"
who was r ght Donne or D ddley? The answer s both of them. It goes back to formal and
nformal reg sters. Bo's got a cobra snake for a neckt e. Not the k nd of guy, I suggest, who
would say someth ng wussy l ke "whom do you love?" (It's the same w th the Ghostbusters,
whose slogan, you may recall, was not "whom you gonna call?")
The relaxed tone we prefer these days makes whom ncreas ngly opt onal, unl ke n Donne's
day. The elegant formal ty of h s prose has an eloquence and resonance that "for who the bell
tolls" lacks. Good t tle for a book, though.
2 That's the way to do it
The trad t onal de n t on s that that de nes and wh ch nforms (g ves extra nformat on), as
n: "Th s s the house that Jack bu lt; but th s house, wh ch John bu lt, s fall ng down." Note
that the sentence rema ns grammat cal w thout that ("th s s the house Jack bu lt") but not
w thout wh ch.
Don't be alarmed by the unhelpful terms, but restr ct ve relat ve clauses (also known as
de n ng, best thought of as g v ng essent al nformat on by narrow ng t down) are not
enclosed by commas, whereas non-restr ct ve relat ve clauses (non-de n ng, g v ng nonessent al nformat on) are.
"Wh ch John bu lt" s non-restr ct ve. It g ves extra nformat on, s preceded by a comma, and
f you try t w th "that" t sounds odd ("th s house, that Jack bu lt"). It's not the same the other
way round: although that s more common n restr ct ve clauses, you can use wh ch: "Th s s
the house wh ch John bu lt."
To simplify things, here's my easy-to-remember formula:
Restrictive clauses: that (des rable), no comma (essent al).
Non-restrictive clauses: wh ch, comma (both essent al).




Nothng compares to Prnce's mastery of grammar. Photograph:

Mchael Putland/Getty Images

3 Nothing compares 2 U
Pr nce was r ght; so was Shakespeare ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?). Compare to
means l ken to; compare w th means make a compar son. So I m ght compare L onel Mess
w th D ego Maradona to assess the r relat ve mer ts, then conclude that Mess can be compared
to Maradona he s a s m larly great player. The two phrases have usefully d st nct mean ngs
and, although "compare to" can be replaced by "l ken to", t's clums er to replace "compare
w th" w th another phrase.
4 A singular problem
"Agreement" or "concord". Yes,more o-putt ng terms for what sa stra ghtforward enough
rule: be cons stent. Gerry Go n and Carole K ng, who composed the Monkees' 1967 h t
Pleasant Valley Sunday, wrote: "The local rock group down the street s try n' hard to learn
the r song." Itjars.
But wa t, I hear you cry. Who says a rock group are s ngular? There were, after all, four of them,
too busy s ng ng to put anybody down. Qu te so. If I had wandered nto the Br ll Bu ld ng n
New York and caught Go n or K ng's ear at the t me, I would have pol tely suggested "are
try n' hard to learn the r song" as the answer.
Collect ve nouns can be s ngular or plural. Treat as s ngular when thenoun s a s ngle un t, but
plural when t s more a collect on of nd v duals, for example: "The fam lycan trace ts h story
back to the m ddle ages; the fam ly were s tt ng down, scratch ng the r heads." Once you've
dec ded whether the noun s s ngular or plural, make sure the verb agrees, or people w ll
conclude you s sloppy.
5 Lie lady lie
Confus on between the verbs layand l e ar ses because the presenttense of the former s the
past tense of the latter. The easy way not to m x them up s to remember that lay s a trans t ve
verb ( t takes an object); l e s ntrans t ve. If you lay a table or an egg, or you lay someth ng
down, the past tense s la d. If you l e down, the past tense s lay. You w ll note that str ctly as
Bob Dylan was nv t ng the lady n quest on to l e down across h s b g brass bed, rather than
report ng that she had done so n the past he should have sung "L e Lady L e" rather than
"Lay Lady Lay". If you try s ng ng t l ke that, however, t sounds Austral an, wh ch would not
really have worked on an album called Nashv lle Skyl ne.

The sounds of syntax: What pop music can teach us about how to build a sentence




James Brown: feels good, has a soul. Photograph: Jesse

Frohman/Corbs Outlne

She Loves You The Beatles

A neat l ttle sentence that typ es word order n Engl sh: subject-verb-object. Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Me Myself and I De La Soul
The rst-person pronoun person ed: object ve, reex ve, subject ve. And a great v deo.
Every Little Thing She Does is Magic The Police
The subject s a ve-word clause; the verb s " s"; the sentence s completed by the
complement: mag c.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik Red Hot Chili Peppers
Not a Rorschach nkblot test, but the Peppers' nouns of cho ce. Note the r preference for
M ddle Engl sh spell ng.
I Only Have Eyes for You The Flamingos
Or, to the armcha r grammar an, "I Have Eyes Only for You".
Wake Up and Make Love With Me Ian Dury and the Blockheads
L ngu sts may object to the old de n t on of verbs as "act on" words, but tell that to Ian Dury.
The Sound of Silence Simon & Garfunkel
The de n te art cle g ves th s oxymoron an mpact that the vaguer "a sound of s lence" would
I Got You (IFeel Good) JamesBrown
Pur sts m ght protest that the adject ve "good" should be the adverb "well". Such people have
no soul.
There's a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis Kirsty MacColl
The syntax, worthy of a tutor al n phrase-structure grammar, reects the fact that wh le the
language s colloqu al, the structure s soph st cated.
Wow Kate Bush (or, if you prefer, Kylie Minogue)
Wow, oops and the l ke are nterject ons. Old novels would somet mes use the verb "ejaculate"
w th them, wh ch we found h lar ous atschool.

A few words on punctuation




Bob Dylan: 'Le Lady Le' doesn't sound rght. Photograph: Jan

Ke th Waterhouse adv sed: "Commas are not cond ments. Do not pepper sentences w th them
unnecessar ly." Qu te so, but a well-placed one s the d erence between "what s th s th ng
called love?" and "what s th s th ng called, love?" And between "let's eat, Grandma!" and
well, you know the rest.
You can lead a full and happy l fe w thout bother ng w th sem colons. I qu te l ke to use one
when I feel that someth ng more than a comma, but less than a full stop, s needed; as here.
They are also very handy n l sts, part cularly when tems cons st of several words or conta n
punctuat on themselves: "H s hol day read ng compr sed Eats, Shoots & Leaves; She eld
Un ted FC: the O c al Centenary H story; and Through the Look ng-Glass, and What Al ce
Found There."
A s ngle dash can also add a touch of drama look! Use spar ngly, however. Some journal sts
have a tendency to st ck a dash n every t me they don't feel l ke wr t ng a proper sentence
l ke th s. Beware sentences such as th s one that dash about all over the place t makes
them look l ke a poem by Em ly D ck nson.
Exclamation marks
Newspapers are sa d to employ var ous synonyms for exclamat on marks, such as bang, shr ek,
dog's cock or screamer. I must say that, after 40 years n the bus ness, I have never heard
anyone use any of these terms. When a newspaper employs an exclamat on mark n a headl ne
t nvar ably means: "Look, we've wr tten someth ng funny!"
This is an edited extract from For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man's Quest for Grammatical
Perfection, by David Marsh, published by Guardian Faber on 3 October. To order a copy for 8.99
(RRP 12.99) visit or call 0330 333 6846.
David Marsh is teaching a grammar Masterclass at the Guardian's London ofce on Monday 25
November. Learn more and book

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