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April 15, 2002

Book's coauthor sets the record straight

By Ann M. Gibb

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes issue with what coauthor and UCSC professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum refers to as grammar myths. Pullum's comments on five such cases follow.

Myth 1: You must never split an infinitive.
Pullum: Hemingway didn't write the phrase "to really live" by mistake; it is perfect English. "To" introduces infinitival verb phrases, and "really live" is an infinitival verb phrase (containing a preverbal adverb). Nothing is split in this form of words. Incidentally: The term "split infinitive" is a misnomer.

Myth 2: It's wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.
Pullum: Sure, if you're talking about classical Latin or standard French. But if we are talking about languages like modern Icelandic or English, then prepositions at ends of clauses have been normal for a thousand years. In some circumstances, having a preposition end a clause is not just permissible, but obligatory. For example, consider "There was some concern about what it would be used for." To rephrase that as "There was some concern about for what it would be used" would be replacing the grammatical by the ungrammatical.

Myth 3: "They" must never occur with a singular antecedent.
Pullum: "They" is standardly used with quantified noun phrase antecedents like "everyone," "no one," and "anybody." So sentences like "Nobody likes paying their taxes" are perfectly grammatical English, and this use has been common for hundreds of years. With other kinds of antecedent, "they" is less likely, but does occur and is becoming more frequent.

Myth 4: The word "since" must be used only in the time-reference sense.
Pullum: The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is one source spreading this nonsense. They are worried that if they let you out on your own you might write something that is (gasp!) ambiguous. It is true that "since Bush became president" has two meanings: (1) "between the time when Bush became president and now" (the temporal sense), and (2) "given that Bush did become president" (inferential). So they propose banning the inferential use, although it was just fine for Will Shakespeare, and is in constant use by everyone, and is often not ambiguous at all. Face facts: English has ambiguous sentences, so deal with it! The famous headline SQUAD HELPS DOG BITE VICTIM is hilariously ambiguous, but does not misuse any words. By all means prevent needless ambiguity in serious writing if you can; but don't expect arbitrary banning of certain senses of words to do it for you.

Myth 5: Expressions like "It was me" and "She was taller than him" are incorrect; the correct forms are "It was I" and "She was taller than he."
Pullum: Stuff and nonsense. In fact, stuffy nonsense: The forms with nominative pronouns sound ridiculously stuffy today. In present-day English, the copular verb takes accusative pronoun complements and so does "than." My advice would be this: If someone knocks at your door, and you say "Who's there?" and what you hear in response is "It is I," don't let them in. It's no one you want to know.

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