the ignorables 

There are a whole bunch of "commandments" of American English usage, usually picked up from Miss Thistlebottom directly but often acquired through the ministrations of well-meaning friends, that happen not to be commandments at all; they are mythical rules, coming most often from some well-intentioned but misguided early grammarian. You can ignore them without doing any violence to the language whatsoever.

In doing so, however, you need to be aware that there are a great many people who still believe that these rules have the effect of law and you must consider whether or not you wish to cater to their corrupted tastes. For instance, on the off chance that such people have a decision-making role in the company where you'd like to be employed, it might be a good idea to avoid these usages in your résumé.

As a public service, wordworks herewith lists the ones that you can blithely ignore if you want to:


Thou shalt not split infinitives.
Thou shalt not end sentences with a preposition.
Thou shalt not use "hopefully" to mean "it is to be hoped."
Thou shalt not verb nouns.
Thou shalt not begin a sentence with a conjunction.


Note: If you don't know what some or any of those rules mean, that also means that you are not burdened with those particular ignorables, and have already been ignoring them all along; more power to you!


Thou shalt not split infinitives.

The proponents of this rule would hold that trekkies must not say, "to boldly go"; it is stylistically unacceptable. When you point out that there are some cases (as indeed there are) where the infinitive must be split for the sentence to have its intended meaning, they'll acknowledge it is acceptable (if lamentable) in those cases. But it is otherwise forbidden. 

How can splitting infinitives be forbidden, you think, if there are times when it must be done? If you are brave enough to ask this question aloud, you will be told that it is "poor style." 

Of course, the reason it is "poor style" is that the infinitive has been split; there is nothing inherently poor about it except to those people who have been told and who have believed that splitting infinitives is poor style. 

The other reason for forbidding infinitive splitting, you might be told, is that some people do it wrong. If some people's errors were a reason to forbid the use of a language construction, we would all have to lock up our pens and pencils and keyboards forever. 

There's reason to believe that the infinitive-splitting rule has its origins in some grammarian's fantasy that, because the Latin infinitive form is a single word, and thus unsplittable, ours should be, too. For this argument, there are two rebuttals, the first being, obviously, "Hey, this ain't Latin!" (for which most of us are grateful). The second is more subtle but more compelling--in English the infinitive form is also one word, the "to" that we associate with it being nothing more than a marker that says "there's an infinitive coming," so there's no way to split our infinitives, either. At this point, you'll want to leave the discussion before it is necessary to get involved in what markers are.

Thou shalt not end sentences with a preposition.

While we wouldn't want to go around saying "thee we sing of," neither would we be caught dead at a cocktail party saying to a promising-looking stranger "From where are you?" The prohibition against ending sentences with a preposition is vastly overrated. If it seems natural to do it in some circumstances, that's probably because it is natural in those circumstances. "What are you afraid of? Miss Thistlebottom?" is as natural as it comes. 

Go ahead and do it--you'll have not only my blessing but Winston Churchill's (possibly apocryphally) as well.

Thou shalt not use "hopefully" to mean "it is to be hoped."

Some people have become so frightened of the word "hopefully" that they won't use it even when no one would object to it, as in "the dog watched the door hopefully." Here it is a simple adverb, modifying "watched" and meaning "full of hope." And it's perfectly okay. 

The other usage, the one that gets some people all worked up, is when you use "hopefully" as what is called by some people a "sentence adverb" that modifies the whole sentence and means "it is to be hoped" (which some people would never say). It's perfectly okay, too. "Hopefully, the sun will come out in time for our picnic" is just fine.

Happily, "hopefully" is the only one of the common sentence adverbs that gets this response. Fortunately, no one has noticed that there are a whole bunch of these adverbs. Naturally, we're not going to tell them. Unfortunately, they might find out anyway. Hopefully, they'll figure out that there's nothing wrong with sentence-modifying adverbs and they'll leave poor little "hopefully" alone.

If you're wondering what the others are, try "happily," "fortunately," "naturally," and "unfortunately." There are certainly others, but I can't think of them at the moment, or else I would have stuck them in the previous paragraph, too.

Thou shalt not verb nouns.

I was reading a mystery novel the other day in which the protagonist said "I can't stand people who use 'contact' as a verb." (As it happened, this protagonist proved to be pretty stupid about other things, too, because when her husband is kidnapped, the kidnappers tell her not to go to the police, and so she doesn't. If she had, the whole plot would have disintegrated in two pages, which would have been a really good idea, not to mention saving me $5.99.)

Personally, I have a real hard time trying to figure out what objection someone might have to "contact" as a verb except as they might be the type of people who object to the verbing of any noun that occurred after they were born. Our language is full of verbs that started life as nouns. "Telephone"; "iron"; "microwave." More recently, "format" and "access." And just yesterday in linguistic time, "e-mail." A lot of them (like "contact") are highly useful in that form. That's why they tend to stick.

It has been said that there is no noun that can't be verbed. If you think you've found one that can't, you just haven't challenged the right people.

However, despite the fact that one can, as with anything else, taste and discretion are required to determine whether one should, and there are many verbings that should be abandoned on a desert isle unheard and unread. Usually these are ones that are created despite the language's already having perfectly good, straightforward verbs from the same root. 

[My spellchecker objected strenuously to all the uses of "verbing" above, just proving how little spellcheckers know.]

Thou shalt not begin a sentence with a conjunction.

I have never been able to figure out why anyone thought this ought to be a rule in the first place. I think it may be another one of those "poor style" rules that came in the same package with "don't use the word 'very'" and all the others intended to give teachers with no imagination something to do. But you can ignore this one, too. Or not. 



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