A Rule Up With Which I Shall Not Put

Jim   Tuesday, February 25, 2003, 07:24 GMT
Who remembers http://www.antimoon.com/forum/2002/370.htm where I asked what the best compromise was between prescriptive and descriptive grammar?

What's your advice to someone who is teaching English either to native speakers or as a second language? How strict should they be about grammar? Grammar needs to be taught, teachers can't just tell their students that anything goes. However, on the other hand, there are some rules that are worth bringing into question.

Some of these rules are rules derived from Latin grammar that gramarians of yesteryear tried to force on English. One such rule is that you should never end a sentence with a preposition. Simon points out that once when told off for bracking this rule, Winston Churchill reputedly answered "Madame, that is a rule up with which I shall not put."

Now, I'm going to be a smart-arse and argue that "Madame, that is a rule I shall not put up with." doesn't break the rule because "put up with" is a phrasal verb so you're not ending the sentence with a preposition but a three word verb. Be that as it may, Churchill would have got his message across: there are some rules that we shouldn't bother with.

We shouldn't be too strict but where do we draw the line? Sentences like "I wish I was rich.", "I didn't do it yet." and "All swans are not white." just sound wrong to me. Whereas using the word "aint", ending a clause with a preposition and spliting and infinitive I can handle. What's your view on the rules of grammar? What should an English teacher tell their students?.
Jim   Tuesday, February 25, 2003, 07:31 GMT
Typo: "spliting and infinitive" should be "splitting an infinitive".
mjd   Tuesday, February 25, 2003, 09:34 GMT
I would have less of a problem with "I wish I was rich" than if someone used ain't. I suppose it's just a pet peeve and I guess it's okay colloquially, but I definitely don't care for it nor do I use it. It just sounds uneducated to me (Sorry, I don't mean to sound like a snob, but I just don't care for the word).

I believe splitting an infinitive is only allowed to preserve the natural rhythm of a sentence (I can't think of any examples off the top of my head right now) but it always sounds awkward to me. For example, there's no reconciling a sentence like "It's important to loudly sing the song." This is blatant violation of splitting an infinitive and it sounds rather awkward. This could possibly pass colloquially, but when it comes to teaching and writing the language, it's a slippery slope to allow such room for awkward sentences

As far as ending a sentence with a preposition, this is an easy rule to get caught up on (there's a nice violation right there). I suppose it's more eloquently written: "It's easy to get caught up on this rule," but it's not as bad as splitting infinitives, at least in my opinion.

I'd write Jim's examples as follows:

"I wish I were rich."

"Not all swans are white."

"I have not yet done it."

I agree with your statement regarding Churchill's sentence. Who am I to contradict the great Winston Churchill, but I think "Madame, that is a rule I shall not put up with." sounds better.

Tough stuff all of these rules. Set me straight Jim if I've made any errors.

mjd   Tuesday, February 25, 2003, 09:52 GMT
Actually, referring back to the question of splitting infinitives, one could say:

"It's important to never split infinitives."

This violates the rule but sounds fine. Perhaps I'm not such a purist afterall.
J   Tuesday, February 25, 2003, 18:34 GMT
If descriptive grammar only describes the way in which a language is natively used, then surely anything I (or any of you) say is quite passable?

Presciptive grammar on the other hand only chooses between two or more possible options, and ought to be no different to choosing words. Perhaps it is better that we use all possible options for maximum meaning. Splitting infinitives and ending in a preposition serve to expand our range of expression
mjd   Tuesday, February 25, 2003, 20:17 GMT
You're right.
pornchai   Wednesday, February 26, 2003, 04:21 GMT
What do you think about Fowler's usage reference book? Is it prescriptive? I have never used it, but I've heard that some people use it all the time. They say even Winston Churchill used it.
Jim   Wednesday, February 26, 2003, 06:57 GMT
I've never seen Fowler's usage reference book.

You write "If descriptive grammar only describes the way in which a language is natively used, then surely anything I (or any of you) say is quite passable?" Yeah, it seems to be the case but you and I both know that some things are just wrong
mjd   Wednesday, February 26, 2003, 07:05 GMT
I think the key lies in the word "options," however as Jim said some choices are wrong. I guess some things, such as the splitting of infinitives in some cases, have evolved to allow themin some cases. I don't think one can just abandon all rules and have a kind of "anything goes" English.
Jim   Thursday, February 27, 2003, 01:59 GMT
Just last night I caught myself saying "I wonder who was the actor." Then I thought "That's wrong I should have said 'I wonder who the actor was.'" but people say things like this all the time. An "anything goes" approach would say that it's okay but I know that it's got to be wrong. There's this bloke on the BBC who keeps using the word "disconnect" as a noun. What the buggery is wrong with him? The word is "disconnexion" . isn't it?