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Next: Reading and Redundancy Up: COLLEGE LEARNING WAYS & Previous: On Paraphrasing


By "grammar" we mean the rules by which words are put together to form sentences. By-and-large, grammatical rules are arbitrary and are not necessarily guided by logic or reason. There is therefore no "good" grammar in the sense of an intrinsic right and wrong. Grammar is whatever rules a group of people follow, often unconsciously, in verbal communication. There are rules that are generally accepted by educated writers/speakers of English, and it is important to know and obey these rules insofar as you want to present yourself as being an educated person. The point deserves emphasis: Grammar is whatever linguistic rules a group of people follow. Black grammar, the language of the street, and teen-talk, are all okay and it is not wrong to say "they hates grammar," in a context where that is the accepted form. Indeed because English is a living language, educated grammar is changing. Before 1960, students were taught to say, "I shall" but increasingly since that time, "I will" has become the preferred style. So it is not a question of good or bad, but what is considered correct by educated people. Ernest Tucker of the Chicago American summarized some of the important rules of educated grammar by illustrating the errors. They are well worth rehearsing: 1. Just between you and I, case is important.

"Case" refers to whether a word is the subject or the object in a sentence, and the most frequent error is in the misuse of "I" and "me" when combined with another person. Instead of "Me and Joan are. . .," one should say, "I and Joan are. . ." And instead of ". . .between Joan and I," one should say, ". . .between Joan and me." This is an easy rule to keep straight because all you have to do is try the sentence without the other person or with the order reversed. If it doesn't sound right to say, "Me are. . ." or "between I," then it isn't right with another person in the sentence. This is an excellent rule to illustrate the inconsistency in the English language. We use the same word as subject and object for another person, namely "you." Hence, we say, "You and I are. . ." and ". . .between me and you." Then again, we have different words for the third person: "She and I are. . ." and ". . .between me and her." But most of the grammatical errors are like, "Me and my sister used to fight a lot," or "You can't separate my sister and I." It is well worth the effort to be on the lookout for such errors. 2. Don't use no double negatives.

The most common negative words are no, not, none, and never, and common negative prefixes are un-, in-, non-, and dis-. A "double negative" is a sentence with two such words or prefixes. This is one grammatical rule that is based on logical reasoning because two negatives combine to make a positive. (Mathematically: 2 - (-1) = 3.) Hence, to say "I didn't do nothing" literally means that you did something. Better to say that you did nothing, or you didn't do anything, if that's what you mean. It may seem as if two negatives should emphasize the negative, but they cancel each other out. Of course, you can use a double negative if you intend for one to cancel out the other. For example, there is a somewhat different meaning if you say, "I don't dislike you," rather than, "I like you." But for such sentences to be interpreted the way that you intend, it must be clear to the other person that you know better than to use a double negative incorrectly. 3. Try to not ever split infinitives.

An infinitive is a verb form when used as a noun, which we do by preceding the verb with the word "to." The result is an indivisible unit. For example, if you like to watch T.V. frequently, "to watch" stands as a single word and you should not say that you like to frequently watch T.V. It may help you get a feel for this rule by pondering why Hamlet said, "To be or not to be," rather than, "To be or to not be." It is only when you hear an infinitive as a single unit that you can be confident of not splitting them in your verbal behavior. 4. Prepositions aren't good to end sentences with.

Prepositions are words that combine with nouns/pronouns to make a phrase. A phrase, in turn, is a group of words that express a single thought or idea. In a prepositional phrase, the preposition logically comes at the beginning: "at the store," "on the table," "with much interest." Ending a sentence in a preposition requires the listener/reader to reconstruct the idea. Compare: "The store we saw the coat at," with "The store at which we saw the coat." Again: "The table you left my book on," with "The table on which you left my book."

Winston Churchill is said to have asserted that this is a rule "up with which I will not put," but the reason for the rule is clear if one ends a sentence in several prepositions: Consider:

What reason did you bring the topic up for? What reason did you bring the topic we disagree about up for? What reason did you bring the topic we disagree and fight over about up for?

The best way to avoid getting tangled up in sentences that are hard to untangle is to avoid ending sentences with prepositions.

5. Make each pronoun agree with their antecedents.

We are prone to mixing up singular and plural pronouns, especially when the sentence contains conflicting cues. For example, you may think of a number of people when I say, "Every student in the class. . ," and so use the plural ending, "had their eyes shut," but student is singular and so the ending should be, "had his or her eyes shut."

6. Verbs has got to agree with their subjects.

This rule is similar to the preceding one, and is most difficult when the verb and subject are separated by a conflicting phrase. For example, if you realize that "none" is a contraction for "no one," you will be careful to say that "None of these rules is difficult to obey."

It is important to know that some words such as "data" are plural and that some words such as "wages" may be singular or plural.

7. Finally, there are some frequently-used words that many people have difficulty distinguishing. I have tried to illustrate these in their correct usage, and if these sentences do not make the point clear to you, you should consult your dictionary for additional clarification.

The effect of learning these rules is to affect your verbal behavior.

The sender may or may not imply what the receiving person infers.

I think that I can do it, so may I try.

Don't keep them between the two of us; spread them among more people.

Who is doing what to whom?

Bring it when you come here; then you take it when you go there.

The īprincipleļ of reinforcement is the īprincipalļ basis for performance.

You count the number to see if there are fewer; you measure the amount to see if there is less; there may be more in either case.

If you lay a book on the desk, it will lie there; if you laid it on the desk yesterday, it lay there ever since.

It is a person who writes about a thing that is interesting.

May the better person win this match; may the best person win the championship.

If you are not sure which word to use, use "that."

Two plus two are four.

The data are impressive.

Regardless of what you may think, irregardless is not a word.

next up previous contents
Next: Reading and Redundancy Up: COLLEGE LEARNING WAYS & Previous: On Paraphrasing
Derek Hamilton