Okay, it’s grammar quiz time. Don’t groan. This won’t hurt, and it won’t be on the final. Here we go:
1) Is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition?
2) Is it okay to use a double negative to get your point across?
3) Is it okay to begin a sentence with “and” or “because”?
If you’re like most people who struggled through second grade English, and all the grades that came after, you answered “No” to all three of those questions. If you’re that second grade school teacher, you answered “No! No! a thousand times, no! Go take a look at your Strunk and White young man.”
On to the final question: Can you tell me why you’re not supposed to do any of these things? Take your time. Go ahead, think about it. Had enough?
If you’re like most people, including your second grade English teacher, you have no idea why you’re not supposed to do these things, you just know you’re not.
Some of you might insist, because those are the rules. But that’s not a reason.
(You might, if you wish, call your second grade English teacher and ask.) The reason — not the reason for these rules, but the reason why we all know the rules even though we have no idea why they are rules — is pretty simple. There isn’t a reason. Or rather, the reason for those rules has nothing to do with actually communicating in the English language. Let’s take them one at a time.
Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. When H.W. Fowler wrote the first grammar book back in 1908, a book called The King’s English, he ran into a problem. He knew people were breaking the rules, but he couldn’t prove it, or punish them for it, because there weren’t any rules. Never one to be stopped by such a small obstacle, he did what all good inventors did, he made them up. He looked around for an authority that would make his rules, well rule-worthy. And found the perfect source: Latin grammar books. (Notice that I’ve just broken one of the rules, the admonition not to start a sentence with a conjunction. Just call me a grammar rebel.)
Here’s what he found: In Latin, the pronoun ad can either mean “into” or “in” depending on the noun that follows it. The only way to tell which that pesky two letter word actually means is to look at the word that follows it and see if it’s in the objective or the subjective case. So, here’s the answer to number one: we don’t end a sentence with a preposition because they don’t in Latin. Is it making sense to you? Don’t worry, the other rules don’t either.
On to rule two: don’t use a double negative. The reason? Fowler couldn’t find any suitable rules for this in Latin, so he turned to algebra. In algebra a double negative equals a positive. So, reasoned Fowler, it must be so in English as well. So when the man with the fat lips sings, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” he really means he can. Got a migraine yet?
Rule three: Unfortunately, we can’t blame Fowler for this one. This has to be laid at the feet of your second grade English teacher. “Because” is a conjunction, a part of speech that connects phrases. It differs from other conjunctions because it can connect two phrases by being placed between them, as in “I like to make fun of grammar because it makes me feel superior.” or, before both clauses, as in “Because it makes me feel superior, I like to make fun of grammar.” Notice that both these sentences are perfectly understandable, and are complete sentences by all the rules of grammar that make sense. However, if I were writing this column for my second grade English teacher it would come back with a big red circle around the second sentence.
So, what good do these rules do us if they don’t help us communicate? These are rules of etiquette rather than communication. Like other rules of etiquette — knowing which fork is the dessert fork and which is the seafood fork, putting your napkin in your lap and not in your collar, and holding out your pinky when your drink high tea with your Aunt Edna — these rules, pinky grammar all, have one purpose. They are there so those of us who know the rules can feel superior to those who do not.
Yes, as silly as I think most of these rules are, I follow them religiously. I distinguish between “who and whom,” “that and which,” “like and as.” I do so, not because I think these rules make any sense, but simply to prove my second grade English teacher that I know them.
As far as I know, there’s only been one man who has had the poise and confidence, the coolness of mind, to face the grammar police down: Winston Churchill. After giving a speech at Whithall, an elderly woman (probably a second grade English teacher) came up to him and admonished him for ending a sentence with a preposition. He replied, “Madam, that is the sort of pedantry, up with which I will not put.” Thank you, Winston. You have showed us the way. I hope someday we can aspire to your courage.
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