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
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
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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