Wikipedia:Lies Miss Snodgrass Told You
This page is an essay on grammar and usage myths.
|This page in a nutshell: Many so-called "rules" about grammar and usage really are not rules at all.|
Most of us, at some point in our schooling, came under the tutelage of a Miss Snodgrass (or Sister Mary Catherine) who drilled into us any number of absolute rules of grammar and usage, many of them of questionable validity. But today it is widely recognized that it's no sin to begin a sentence with a conjunction or to occasionally split an infinitive, and that a preposition is an acceptable thing to end a sentence with – despite what Miss Snodgrass told us in the seventh grade. However, many editors remain in thrall of various lies Miss Snodgrass told them, and now and then one runs into an editor who has adopted one or more of these misconceptions as a grammar and usage hobbyhorse about which they feel compelled to educate their fellow editors.
Perennial GUHs (grammar and usage hobbyhorses)
The following are not rules of English, no matter what someone may tell you. (Or, as Shakespeare might have put it: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your seventh-grade English teacher's handouts.)
- "A paragraph should have at least/no more than X sentences."
- "British English (or Commonwealth English more broadly) always uses spaced en dashes – not unspaced em dashes – as sentence punctuation." Or: "All English writing uses only unspaced em dashes—not spaced en dashes—as sentence punctuation."
- (This has very little to do with national variety – it's mostly just house style.)
- "However / But / And / Or shouldn't begin a sentence."
- (And and Or generally should not begin a sentence in encyclopedic writing, except when giving a series of examples or alternative explanations in full sentences. But But and However are common, and preferable to a run-on sentence.)
- "Use only apostrophe, not apostrophe + s, to form the singular possessive of any word or name ending in s: Miss Snodgrass' narrow ideas about what constitutes good writing."
- (Style guides widely disagree on this. It's not wrong to just use the 's, in any dialect.)
- "British/Commonwealth English always uses s not z, and -our and -re (and American English always uses z not s, and -or and -er) in words like organisation/organization, honour/honor and theatre/theater."
- "It's program and dialog in North America and programme and dialogue everywhere else."
- (While programme is virtually unknown in the US, it's common in Canada. Meanwhile, most of the Commonwealth uses program in the computer context, and programme otherwise. Many Americans use dialogue in reference to scripts and fiction. Dialog is nearly universal in writing about computer interfaces.)
- "Passive voice should always be converted to active voice."
- (Passive voice can smooth flow, and at times is almost unavoidable because details are unknown or controverted.)
- "Commas are required around Jr./Junior/Jnr and Sr./Senior/Snr in personal names, as in Xerxes Y. Zounds, Jr., was born in 1912."
- (This formerly widespread usage is no longer the majority practice, including in the US.)
- "British English requires single quotation marks (inverted commas), then double ones for nested quotations."
- (Varies by publication.)
- "In American English, terminal punctuation must be put inside the closing quotation mark, even if not part of the original material."
- (While there are national and topical tendencies, this is by no means a question of nationality, and varies from publication to publication.)
- "The serial comma[a] is just British." Or: "The serial comma is only American."
- (The complexity of the arguments for, against, and around the so-called Oxford or Harvard comma defies summary, and there are advocates and practitioners of all approaches just about everywhere.)
- "When a sentence introduces a quotation that is also a full sentence, the quotation must be preceded by a colon, not a comma; e.g., As Winston Churchill put it: 'Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.'"
- (While this is generally a good practice, style guides differ on this, and over-application of it can produce awkward results, like He replied: "No." A good rule of thumb is to prefer a colon for any quoted complete sentence of five words or longer, or shorter ones that are intended to stand out; but otherwise use a comma for shorter ones, and use a comma or nothing, as appropriate, for a longer quoted sentence that naturally flows grammatically into the quoting sentence.)[example needed]
- "Which is only for nonrestrictive clauses, and that is for restrictive clauses."
- (Of the lies that – or which – Miss Snodgrass told you, this is one of her most cherished. But it's a "rule" that – or which – plenty of good writers don't follow. Partly an American–British thing.)
- "Shall must be used to indicate the future tense – never use will." Or some nonsense about person or emphasis.
- (In contemporary usage they're technically interchangeable, though will is far more common.)
- Wikipedia:Ignore all rules
- Wikipedia:Manual of style
- Language change
- Linguistic prescription
- Linguistic purism
Notes and jokes
- The serial comma is sometimes called the Oxford comma. At Oxford they call it the Harvard comma. At Harvard they call it the Princeton comma. At Princeton they call it the Yale comma. At Yale they don't know what it is.