We’ve heard them all before. Purge adverbs relentlessly. Do not end sentences with a preposition. Do not split infinitives. 

And then we hear from linguists, who contradict our high school English teachers by telling us these are all myths. Two are  myths. One is the dominant stylistic preference of the day. Let’s take these last to first.

Split Infinitives

Like many rules of English that aren’t really rules, this is based in Latin. Only English is a Germanic language spoken by two tribes who moved into England after the Romans pulled out. Old English, as in the language of Beowulf, looks and sounds like Dutch. When the Angles, then the Saxons, became the dominant tribes of England, Anglo-Saxon became the default language. So, how did Latin rules get imposed upon English? Blame the Normans. They spoke French. Plus, heavily Christian Europe used Latin as lingua franca. And in Latin, you can’t split an infinitive, a rule that carries forward to French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. But in those languages, there is no “to walk,” a two-word construction that can, in fact, be split. (“To boldly go where no one has gone before.” Sorry, but GR wins that argument.) Infinitives in Romance languages are all one word. For example, we say, “to have.” The Spanish say, “tener.” Spanish infinitives end in an “r.” You can’t split the word. So, why is this a “rule” in English? Because many scholars spoke both languages. Some got it in their heads that Latin rules should apply to English. Only English is Germanic, not Latin. It glommed a lot of Latin words, but it has a lot more Welsh (and thanks, Wales. for “ough.” Must have been tough to have thought that up, though.) and Old Danish. 

But if it’s not a rule, how is this useful? The late General Colin Powell ordered his staff to check for split infinitives when revising their reports. He didn’t believe the rule himself. He did, however, believe purging the split infinitive put one into the mindset to also spot “your/you’re” and “there/their/they’re” errors. And he was right. Look for crutch words, broken “rules,” and dodgy phrasing, and you’re likely to discover more errors or tighten up your prose.

Sentence-ending Prepositions

I can’t count the number of times in high school this forced me to write some stilted prose. It is now a linguistic myth up with which I will not put! 

Once again, blame the Latin nerds. If i haven’t made it clear enough, English is not Latin! Latin rules do not apply! In this case, ending a sentence in a preposition in Latin or a Latin-based language is impossible. Not so in English.

So how is this useful?

Just because you can end a sentence in a preposition does not mean you must end a sentence in a preposition. Like adverbs, it can weaken your writing. Now, in dialog, you may want a few ending prepositions. There’s an old joke not worth repeating here about a student at an Ivy League school getting a tongue-lashing for saying, “Where’s the library at?” The student corrects himself in, shall we say, the Samual L. Jackson manner. Older versions of this joke are best left forgotten, but the basic premise still works. 

But, like adverbs, the preposition can be moved to make an idea clearer. When it doesn’t work, leave it. You don’t want your writing filled with bloated lines like “up with which I will not put!”

Adverbs

Adverbs get a lot of bad press. There’s a reason for that. Adverbs appear far too often. The worst offenders often also shout the loudest about it. Right, Stephen King? But go back in time. Many of the classics are laced with adverbs. And what are adverbs? They describe adjectives. They describe verbs. In a few horrific and best-forgotten instances, they even describe other adverbs. 

Now, the anti-adverb bias can be extreme. If you purge all the adverbs from a given work, the musical 1776 loses one of its most memorable numbers. Egregious-Lee, one might say. 

But overuse of adverbs (Using them liberal-Lee?) can really bloat prose. Crutch words such as “just” are adverbs. Yet they are part of the language. Quite often, they cannot be avoided. (Ironic-Lee.) So, if this is more a trend in editing than a rule, how is it useful?

Simple. While adverbs in and of themselves are not evil, overuse can rob a line of its strength. Hunting for adverbs puts a writer (or editor) in the mindset of tightening the prose. Does that adverb belong there? Probably not. If it strengthens the sentence, or it’s more efficient, run with it. Chances are, almost any adverb applied to an adjective can go. Applied to a verb, think in terms of whether the verb is better off without it. Is the adverb conveying any additional information that colors the sentence? If so, keep it. If not, chop chop. And never use an adverb on another adverb. That is the pineapple-on-pizza of linguistic atrocities.

 

We can argue all day about the legitimacy of the rules. However, the point is to make the prose stronger and eliminate unnecessary words. If it works, break the rules! But be smart about it. Someone’s going to have to read what you write.

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