Because a portion of my blog is dedicated to writing, from time to time, I like to post about the English language. So join me for a few English grammar lessons. Not to worry. We aren’t going to diagram sentences here. Do you remember doing that in elementary and middle school? I do. Of course, as far as I know, English is no longer taught that way–and judging from the way many young Americans butcher the English language today, that is a shame.
Today we will look at (1) five obscure grammar rules you probably didn’t know existed; (2) Eight words Americans pronounce differently from English speakers across the pond; and (3) Four grammar rules it is okay to break today. My thanks to WordGenuis.
Five Obscure Grammar Rules You Didn’t Know Existed
With strange, archaic rules, as well as numerous exceptions to those rules, English grammar is just plain tricky. It makes sense that people tend to ignore the more obscure ones and focus on the day-to-day rules that make regular communication easier. However, when you’re writing to impress, it always helps to use some more sophisticated sentence structures.
Compound Subjects and Verbs
A compound subject can combine two elements with “and” (Jim and Pam) or with “or” or “nor” (Jim or Dwight). The verb is simple enough with “and.” “Jim and Pam went to work.” Since “Jim and Pam” is a plural compound subject, the verb (went) is plural as well.
But when the compound subject is separated by “or” or “nor,” the verb tense will agree with the most recent noun.f
“Jim or Dwight answers the phone.” (Singular verb tense)
“Neither Toby nor the rest of the office want to go to lunch with Michael.” (Plural verb tense)
We’re going back in time here. “You” was the polite version of “thou,” and not the other way around. Even though it may sound stuffy now, “thou” was considered informal and used when a speaker had a degree of familiarity with the other person (like “tu” and “usted” in Spanish). To use “thou” with someone who was considered higher status, like a king, was disrespectful.
Em-Dashes and Hyphens
Em-dashes, hyphens, and en-dashes are not interchangeable. (Em-dash: — En-dash: – Hyphen: -)
Em-dashes are used as heightened parentheses. If you want to insert a thought into your sentence, em-dashes will work best. For example, “I thought we were friends — more than friends, even!”
En-dashes are used to separate values. For example: “I drink about 3-4 bottles of water a day” Hyphens are reserved for compound modifiers. For example, “I love my blue-green convertible.”
A and An
The articles “a” and “an” are used based on vowel sounds, not the actual vowels used. The phrase “an hour” is grammatically correct while “a hour” is not.
The subjunctive tense in general is confusing, and not something you think about unless you’re in a grammar class. But it’s one of those things that can really elevate your speech. It specifically describes something that is not a known objective fact, such as a mood, a wish, or a dream. For example, “If I were to win the lottery, I would never have to work again.”
Eight Words Americans Pronounce Differently from English Speakers Across the Pond
Even among fellow English speakers, pronunciation is a curious thing. You could be watching your favorite British crime drama and have to turn on the captions just to understand it. And visitors to the U.S. may find themselves asking for people to repeat themselves. Here are eight words that Americans pronounce differently from everybody else.
Herb (erb vs. her-b)
You know those plants you grow in your windowsill and add to your salads and breads? Americans ignore that first “h,” making the word sound like “erb,” while Brits most assuredly say “herb” with that “h” sound. The pronunciation affects spelling, as well. Americans might say they want to grow “an” herb garden, but the Brits enjoy “a” herb garden.
The Letter “Z” (zee vs. zed)
“A, B, C, D, E, F, G…W, X, Y, and Z.” It’s the song we all learned as children, and it ends in “zee” — unless you’re from any country that learned the Queen’s English. They all say “zed.” So, did Americans get it wrong when crossing the ocean? It seems so, especially considering the British adopted the letter from the Greek zeta, which adds that extra consonant sound.
Crayon (cran vs. cray-on )
What is that thing children color with that comes in a box of 8, 16, 24, or 96? It’s called a “cran” — unless you aren’t an American, and then it’s a “cray-on.” This one also has nuance across the U.S., with some regions following the rest of the world in their dual-syllable pronunciation.
Buoy (boo-ee vs. boy)
You might not care about the correct pronunciation if you ever find yourself lost at sea, but nonetheless there is a discrepancy over that floating marker in the water. Americans elongate the word with two syllables (boo-ee), while the British pronunciation is the short and sweet “boy.”
Foyer (foy-yer vs. foy-yay)
Here’s an example of French pronunciation gone wrong. If you’re lucky enough to have the space for a special entryway area, you might as well call it something fancy. But Americans have tarnished the pronunciation, calling it a “foy-yer” instead of the French “foy-yay.”
Mobile (mo-bul vs. mohb-ayl)
Ring! Ring! There goes your phone. If you’re in the U.S., you probably answer your cell. But if you’re anywhere else, it’s your mobile (pronounced “mohb-ayl”). When Americans describe something as “mobile,” they pronounce it “mo-bul.” Unless of course they’re referring to the Batmobile (or Oscar Mayer Wienermobile), which introduces yet another pronunciation, “mo-beel.”
Nadine (nay-deen vs. nuh-deen)
Now we get to the names portion of this list. Which is the correct pronunciation? Whichever one your mother gave you. But you can distinguish the choices across border lines. Most Americans pronounce this moniker “nay-deen.” If you’re a Nadine, don’t be offended if you hear another version on your travels.
Cecil (see-sil vs. seh-sil)
Another good old-fashioned name to add to the list. “See-sil” is definitely the more American way of pronouncing it, but “seh-sil” sounds way more posh. If you want to add a tweed coat and a monocle to your wardrobe, you can go with “seh-sil.”
Four Grammar Rules it is Okay to Break Today
Dig out your old grammar workbooks. Got them? OK, now throw them away! That’s right, we’re talking about breaking the rules. Grammar is constantly evolving, meaning rules that were once drilled into your head by schoolteachers are now more like guidelines — sometimes to be ignored. Here are four grammar rules that you no longer need to stress about. (We’re breaking one of the rules right away!)
Don’t end sentences with prepositions.
“You don’t know with whom you’re messing!” is probably not the phrase you’d hear during a heated argument. Chopping and restructuring prepositional phrases was probably one of those lessons touted by your 7th-grade English teacher, but the need for such a rule is questionable at best. It’s wordy, it doesn’t do anything to further clarify the meaning, and it makes the speaker sound awkwardly pretentious.
Seventeenth-century linguists argued that because a preposition can’t be stranded in Latin, the same should be true for English. But Latin departs from English in myriad ways, the least of which being stranded prepositions. While you should probably still use the old standby for academic papers or journalistic writing, this is definitely a rule to toss out of your everyday vocabulary.
The one exception to this rule abandonment is unnecessary tag-ons of prepositions. This means adding prepositions at the end of a sentence when you don’t need to. For example, “Where is this bus going to?” can easily be “Where is this bus going?” Fewer words make a more concise sentence.
Don’t split infinitives.
“To go boldly where no one has gone before” just doesn’t have the same ring as Captain Picards’s “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” While it is true that the adverb “boldly” is modifying the infinitive “to go,” placing the adverb before the verb gives emphasis to the special intent of the verb before the listener hears it. Trekkies know that something bold is about to happen.
The rule of not splitting infinitives is yet another carryover from Latin. Latin infinitives are a single word, indicating to some linguists that English infinitives should be treated as a single unit. But again, English is not Latin. Split infinitives have been used by some of English’s best writers, from Benjamin Franklin to William Wordsworth, from Samuel Johnson to George Bernard Shaw, so why not you?
Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
“But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one,” say William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White in The Elements of Style.
Beginning a sentence with a conjunction — such as “but” or “and” — has long been a grave grammatical sin. But beginning a sentence with a conjunction helps to keep thoughts separated and will save you from a confusing cacophony of commas, not to mention allow your reader to breathe between thoughts. Conjunctions, sometimes recognized using the mnemonic FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), but more accurately by Merriam Webster’s mnemonic WWWFLASHYBONNBAN (whether, well, why, for, likewise, and, so, however, yet, but, or, nor, now, because, also, nevertheless), have been used to start sentences for over a millennium.
The Bible uses conjunction-led sentences with abandon:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.
As further evidence, the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style both permit the use of conjunctions to start sentences.
Never start a sentence with hopefully.
“It is hoped that the taxi will arrive soon.”
“Hopefully, the taxi will arrive soon.”
“Hopefully” has been unfairly singled out by grammarians as the adverb you should never use to start a sentence. Taxis cannot do things in a hopeful manner, and you, the speaker, are the hopeful one. But English can bend for the sake of conversation. And besides, rarely do grammarians take issue with adverbs like “clearly,” “unbelievably,” or “fortunately,” modifying the following sentence.
Hopefully, you’re able to concisely write to someone without worrying about unnecessary grammar rules. But if they can’t appreciate your interpretation of the English language, find new friends to share your writing with.
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