Some Rules to Consider

A discussion of some rules of grammar to which you might or might not wish to adhere.

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Following on from the articles concerning the importance or otherwise of good grammar, let’s look at some cases where it’s probably unimportant (or even doubtful that the rules ever had any real authority), and a couple where they probably are important. Note the use of the word ‘probably’. In many discussions of things linguistic, not everyone agrees. Italian academics have been known to come close to homicide when debating the intricacies of the use of the subjunctive.

1. Don’t start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’. This is something that children are taught, but either they or their teachers forgot that there should be a caveat: ‘unless you know what you’re doing’. The rule is taught to stop children writing sentences such as ‘We have a brown dog. And a black cat’ – a sort of reverse run-on sentence. Many great writers start sentences or even paragraphs with ‘and’ and ‘but’, There really is nothing at all wrong with it.

2. Don’t split an infinitive. This was a rule that was made up by scholars of grammar, purely on the basis that you could not split an infinitive in Latin, therefore you should not in English. It’s true that it is possible to demonstrate cases where there is a technically ambiguity caused by splitting an infinitive (does ‘to boldly go’ mean that the decision to go is bold, or that once you set off, you go in a bold manner – almost certainly both!), but, in reality they are extremely contrived.

3. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. It’s perfectly correct to end a sentence with a proposition, but if you want to go for a very formal voice, refraining from doing so helps. So for a research paper or a funding submission, perhaps avoid them; for anything else, feel free.

Our first ‘probably worth considering’ rule, concerns the use of the word ‘like’. ‘Like’ as being discussed here, is a synonym for ‘similar to’. No one would say ‘It’s similar to he was here’, but they’re quite happy to say ‘it’s like he was here’. It should be ‘It’s as if he were here’. Get that wrong and, to anyone who knows better, you just sound illiterate.

Now, let’s look at another, more complex, aspect of grammar that seems to be giving no end of people no end of trouble: should one treat a collective noun as singular or plural?

There are two very obvious answer to this question but neither of them fits every case.

‘If it’s a collection, that collection is just one thing, so clearly you should treat it as singular’. Or ‘If it’s a collection then it must be more than one thing, so obviously you treat it a plural’. What you actually need to do is decide if you are talking about the collection itself, or the members of the collection.

As an example, where it may not be immediately apparent which conjugation to use, consider the following sentences: “The range of goods is large”, and “A range of goods are available”.

In the first instance it is the range itself that is being described so it is singular. In the second, it’s the actual goods themselves that are being referred to, so they are plural.

A more obvious and blatant example: ‘A number of people are coming to the party’, ‘The number of people coming to the part is high’.
Consider that with the sentences incorrectly cast as: ‘A number of people is coming to the party’, ‘The number of people coming to the part are high’, and you can see the errors straight away.

Sometimes it can be hard to make the call. “A group of men walked down the street. At the end it turned right” might not sound too bad, but consider: “A couple of men walked down the street. At the end it turned right”. That is clearly absurd. Which provides a useful clue, as if it’s obvious when one member of a class of collective nouns is clearly plural, why should another member, used in exactly the same way, be different. (Technically, the group as an entity does not actually turn. Turning requires that you rotate about your own axis, and a group does not do that when turning a corner, but that is drifting well into the realms of pedantry.)

Also, when, for example, referring to a company, there are times when it is singular: “The company is doing well, its balance sheet is healthy”. Here, the balance sheet is an attribute of the company, not on any member, or even all the members as a collective. On the other hand in the case of “We contacted the company and they are keen to supply us”, the company (as an entity separate from its members) is incapable of keenness, or any other emotion, so it must be the members that are referred to, and they, of course, are in the plural. Finally a lost battle, I think, but something to consider if you want every possible audience to consider you thoroughly literate.
Do not use the grotesque construction: “for free” (I said it was a lost battle).

The reason that this grates so badly to people who care about language, is that it is not simply a case of a word changing its meaning. It hasn’t. You cannot, for example, answer the question: ‘what is going to happen next’ with the response: ‘free’.

So ‘free’ has not gained a meaning of ‘nothing’, it’s simply being used with no regard for literacy.

He is a computer scientist, born in London but spent most of his life living in Kent.

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