Common English Usage Misconceptions

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Common English Usage Misconceptions

Post  Vincent Law on Thu Oct 11, 2012 1:17 pm

COMMON ENGLISH USAGE MISCONCEPTIONS - Grammar:

- Misconception: A sentence must not end in a preposition.
Mignon Fogarty ("Grammar Girl") says, "nearly all grammarians agree that it's fine to end sentences with prepositions, at least in some cases." Fowler's Modern English Usage says that "One of the most persistent myths about prepositions in English is that they properly belong before the word or words they govern and should not be placed at the end of a clause or sentence." Preposition stranding was in use long before any English speakers considered it to be incorrect. This idea probably began in the 17th century, owing to an essay by the poet John Dryden, and it is still taught in schools today. But, "every major grammarian for more than a century has tried to debunk" this idea; "it's perfectly natural to put a preposition at the end of a sentence, and it has been since Anglo-Saxon times." "Great literature from Chaucer to Milton to Shakespeare to the King James version of the Bible was full of so called terminal prepositions." Winston Churchill is said to have written, "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put," illustrating the awkwardness that could result from a rule prohibiting sentence-ending prepositions.

- Misconception: Infinitives must not be split.
"There is no such rule" against splitting an infinitive, according to The Oxford Guide to Plain English, and it's "never been wrong to 'split' an infinitive". In some cases it might be preferable to split an infinitive. But, Phillip Howard states that this is "another great Shibboleth of English syntax", and the "grammatical 'rule' that most people retain from their schooldays is the one about not splitting infinitives". According to the University of Chicago Writing Program, "Professional linguists have been snickering at it for decades, yet children are still taught this false 'rule.' "

In his grammar book A Plea for the Queen's English (1864), Henry Alford claimed that "to" was part of the infinitive and that the parts were inseparable. This was in line with a movement by grammarians in the 19th century to transfer Latin rules to the English language (in Latin, infinitives are unsplittable words, e.g., "amare, cantare, audire").

- Misconception: The words "and" and "but" must not begin a sentence.
Those who impose this rule for themselves are following a modern English "rule" that was not used historically. Jeremy Butterfield described this perceived prohibition as one of "the folk commandments of English usage". The Chicago Manual of Style says,

There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as 'and', 'but', or 'so'. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.

Regarding the word "and", Fowler's Modern English Usage states, "There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards." Garner's Modern American Usage adds, "It is rank superstition that this coordinating conjuction cannot properly begin a sentence." The word "but" suffers from similar misconceptions. Garner tells us that, "It is a gross canard that beginning a sentence with but is stylistically slipshod. In fact, doing so is highly desirable in any number of contexts, as many stylebooks have said (many correctly pointing out that but is more effective than however at the beginning of a sentence)". Fowler's echoes this sentiment, saying "The widespread public belief that But should not be used at the beginning of a sentence seems to be unshakeable. Yet it has no foundation."

- Misconception: The passive voice is incorrect.
An English myth is that the passive voice is always incorrect and some "writing tutors" believe that the passive voice is to be avoided in all cases. However, "There are legitimate uses for the passive voice," says Paul Brians. Mignon Fogarty also points out that "passive sentences aren't incorrect", and "If you don't know who is responsible for an action, passive voice can be the best choice." When the active and passive voices can both be used without much awkwardness, there are differing opinions about which one should be preferred. Bryan A. Garner adds a twist to the misconception about passive voice with the statement, "Many writers talk about passive voice without knowing exactly what it is. In fact, many think that any BE-VERB signals passive voice."

- Misconception: Using double negatives is always bad English.
This myth is included by Patricia O'Conner in a list of "bogus or worn out rules". She advises readers to avoid certain uses (such as "I didn't do nothing") but not to completely remove the double negative from our English toolboxes when constructing prose. O'Connor provides the following as acceptable examples: "It's not inconceivable. She's not unappealing." Paul Brians, who affirms that "It is not true, as some assert, that double negatives are always wrong," provides the following as a humorous example:

One of the funniest uses of the literary double negative is Douglas Adams' description of a machine dispensing "a substance almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea."
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Re: Common English Usage Misconceptions

Post  Vincent Law on Fri Oct 12, 2012 4:08 pm

COMMON ENGLISH USAGE MISCONCEPTIONS - Typography:

- Misconception: Two spaces must follow each sentence.
Placing two word spaces between sentences is a typewriter convention that has carried over into the age of digital media. Most style guides recommend only a single space between sentences. Professionally published books, magazines, and newspapers also use a single space between sentences, but even this is widely overlooked due to text being justified.

- Misconception: Every paragraph must be indented.
Professionally printed material does not always have an indented first paragraph. Robert Bringhurst states that we should "Set opening paragraphs flush left" and explains as follows: "The function of a paragraph is to mark a pause, setting the paragraph apart from what precedes it. If a paragraph is preceded by a title or subhead, the indent is superfluous and can therefore be omitted."

- Misconception: Hyphens and dashes have the same meaning.
According to David Jury, "a prevailing lack of typographic knowledge mean[s] that the hyphen is, today, commonly used for all dashes, just as it was when this was due to the technical limitations of the typewriter." These characters "all have different purposes, but they are often confused and misused".

- Misconception: Straight quotation marks (or "dumb" quotes) are the same as quotation marks.
According to Ilene Strizver, "Misuse of 'dumb' quotes is one of the most common typographical faux pas, which is repeatedly found in high-end print, multimedia advertising, movie credits, as well as non-professional work." These "refugees from the typewriter keyboard ... have no typographic function". Unlike modern "smart" word-processing software, which makes use of character context information, most typewriters were mechanically operated and had only one quote mark keystroke. Typewriters were thus unable to show a distinction between an opening quote mark and a closing one. Computer code, email, and other plain-text computer media also typically use straight quotation marks as well, because curved quotation marks are not included in the ASCII character set and are typically not distinct on computer keyboards.
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Re: Common English Usage Misconceptions

Post  Vincent Law on Wed Oct 17, 2012 4:35 am

COMMON ENGLISH USAGE MISCONCEPTIONS - Usage:

- Misconception: Paragraphs must comprise at least three sentences.

This is an English myth. Richard Nordquist states that "no rule exists regarding the number of sentences that make up a paragraph," noting that professional writers use "paragraphs as short as a single word". According to the Oxford Guide to Plain English,

If you can say what you want to say in a single sentence that lacks a direct connection with any other sentence, just stop there and go on to a new paragraph. There's no rule against it. A paragraph can be a single sentence, whether long, short, or middling.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Writing Center states on its website, "Many students define paragraphs in terms of length: a paragraph is a group of at least five sentences, a paragraph is half a page long, etc." The website explains, "Length and appearance do not determine whether a section in a paper is a paragraph. For instance, in some styles of writing, particularly journalistic styles, a paragraph can be just one sentence long." Many of history's greatest writers used one and two sentence paragraphs in their works.

- Misconception: Contractions aren't appropriate in proper English.
Bill Walsh lists this as one of the "big myths of English usage" and Patricia O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman write, "A lot of people ... still seem to think that contractions are not quite ... quite. If you do too, you're quite wrong." Writers such as Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, and others since Anglo-Saxon days have been "shrinking English". Some of the opinion makers in the 17th and 18th century eschewed contractions, but beginning in the 1920s, usage guides have allowed them. "Most writing handbooks now recommend contractions", but "there are still lots of traditionalists out there who haven't gotten the word", contributing to the modern myth that contractions are forbidden usage. A number of writing guides still recommend not to use contractions in academic and formal writing.

- Misconception: "I feel badly" is the correct negative response to "How do you feel?"
According to Paul Brians in Common Errors in English Usage, " 'I feel bad' is standard English", and " 'I feel badly' is an incorrect hyper-correction by people who think they know better than the masses." The expression "I feel badly" is often used in English, but it is not usually possible as a meaningful reply to this question because it means "I feel guilty" and implies or often requires an addition beginning with "about...".

- Misconception: The phrase "begs the question" was synonymous with "raises the question" when it was originally coined.

"Begging the question" is a logical fallacy, but "most people now suppose the phrase implies something quite different: that the argument demands that a question about it be asked—raises the question", says Paul Brians. However, Merriam-Webster dictionaries allow both meanings.
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Re: Common English Usage Misconceptions

Post  Vincent Law on Wed Oct 24, 2012 9:01 am

COMMON ENGLISH USAGE MISCONCEPTIONS - Semantics:

- Misconception: "Healthy" was historically a correct adjective for describing food.
According to Paul Brians, "Many argue 'people are healthy, but vegetables are healthful​' "; however, "phrases like 'part of a healthy breakfast' have become so widespread that they are rarely perceived as erroneous except by the hyper-correct.

- Misconception: Non-standard, slang, or colloquial words are not real words.
For instance, despite appearing as a word in numerous dictionaries, "irregardless" is dismissed as "not a word" in some style guides. All words in English originated by becoming commonly used during a certain time period, thus there are many informal words currently regarded as "incorrect" in formal speech or writing. But the idea that they are somehow not words is a misconception. Examples of words that are sometimes alleged to be "not a word" include "conversate", "funnest", "impactful", "mentee" and "thusly". All of these appear in numerous dictionaries as English words.

- Misconception: "Inflammable" means something that cannot burn."
 'Flammable' and 'inflammable' both mean 'easy to catch on fire', but so many people misunderstand the latter term that it's better to stick with 'flammable' in safety warnings", says Paul Brians.

- Misconception: "Nauseous" cannot mean suffering from nausea.
Some writers on language, such as Theodore Bernstein and Bill Bryson, have advanced the idea that "nauseous" means only causing nausea (synonymous with "nauseating") not suffering from it (which would be "nauseated"), and therefore it is incorrect to say "I am nauseous" (unless you mean to say "I inspire nausea in others"). This prescription is contradicted by vast evidence from English usage, and Merriam-Webster finds no source for the rule prior to a published letter by a physician, Deborah Leary, in 1949.

- Misconception: "Xmas" is a secular plan to "take the Christ out of Christmas."
"The usual suggestion is that 'Xmas' is ... an attempt by the ungodly to x-out Jesus and banish religion from the holiday." However, X stands for the Greek letter Chi, the starting letter of Χριστός, or "Christ" in Greek. (Also see the related Chi Rho symbol.) The use of the word "Xmas" can be traced to the year 1021 when "monks in Great Britain...used the X while transcribing classical manuscripts into Old English" in place of "Christ". The Oxford English Dictionary's "first recorded use of 'Xmas' for 'Christmas' dates back to 1551." Paul Brians adds that, "so few people know this that it is probably better not to use this popular abbreviation in religious contexts."
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