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Monday, October 12

English Lesson 1

I’ve been thinking about all those old pedantic rules of English grammar that I used to teach, most of which I told my students to ignore. But I thought they should at least know what they were before they ignored them.

First, don’t split infinitives. That’s when you put some adverbial stuff in between the sign of the infinitive, “to,” and the verbal itself, like “Try to never listen to old English teachers.” Un-split, it becomes, “Try never to listen to old English teachers.” A little awkward but okay. But sometimes there’s no better place to put an adverb than right there between the “to” and the verbal. For example, “Life is too short to totally behave yourself in studyhall.” Can “totally” go anywhere else? Even, “Shoe” can make fun of this silly old rule.
Second, don’t end sentences with prepositions. Winston Churchill famously had this to say about that: “This is a form of pedantry up with which I will not put!” When a writer tries too hard to avoid the prepositional ending, the sentence can come out sounding too stuffily formal. For example, “The Red Cross was the charity they chose to give their fortune to.” Switch it to, “The Red Cross was the charity to which they chose to give their fortune.” A little stuffy, right? Now look at this sentence in which there’s no way to avoid the preposition at the end: “The trip committee decided it was the best direction to come in from.” Lousy sentence, yes, but the only way to fix it leaves “The trip committee decided it was the best direction from which to come in.” Okay, okay, maybe it should have been “The trip committee decided it was the best way to enter.” But we still have the American verb “to come in” equal to “to enter.”

Third, there’s the old dictum to never begin a sentence with “and” or “but,” and to always write in complete sentences. But I’ve already broken that one three times thus far. Also, two split infinitives in the sentence above. Also, a sentence fragment in the last sentence. Also this one.

Fourth, don’t let your modifiers dangle or get misplaced. A dangler usually refers to a word group at the beginning of a sentence that should be referring to the subject of the main clause. Such an error can lead to misunderstanding or sometimes even hilarity. For example, “Flying over the African plain, the elephant herd looked majestic.” That would require a very large plane. Another: “Smashed flat by a passing truck, my dog Rowlfie sniffed at what was left of a half-eaten Whopper.” Poor Rowlfie. And one example of a modifier that got misplaced, maybe even lost: “The body was discovered by a hunter with a gunshot wound to the head.”

Fifth, don’t engage in superfluity, excess, repetition, prolixity, wordiness, or redundancy. That sentence is a good example of what not to do. Here are a few much shorter examples: a pair of twins (Does that mean there are four or only two?), surrounded on all sides (Does that include above and below?), consensus of opinion (One of the few things I learned in my high school Latin class was that “consensus” already means “a unity of opinion” and that only dumb dolts would ever say “consensus of opinion.”)

There, that should be enough English lessoning for the day. But one last comment about the vagaries and complexities of the English language. Look at these pairs of words that drive foreigners as well as natives crazy: "discomfit" & "discomfort," "sacrilegious" & "irreligious," "squash" & "quash," "rife" & "ripe," "complimentary" & "complementary," "effect" & "affect," and "slow up" & "slow down." These last two are crazy Americanisms that are but shouldn't be synonymous.
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