There are two types of grammar: Descriptive, which describes what is customary, and prescriptive grammar, which prescribes what should be. A tension between the two systems is inevitable — and healthy; it keeps us thinking about what we’re saying and writing.
Allowing mob rule at the expense of some governing of composition is madness, but a diction dictatorship is dangerous, too. As with any prescription, an overdose is contraindicated. Here are some hard pills to swallow for language mavens who require a strict adherence to rigid syntactical patterns at the expense of, well, language:
1. Never split an infinitive.
It isn’t wise to always ignore this fallacious rule against dividing the elements of the verb phrase “to (verb)” with an adverb, but to blindly follow it is to prohibit pleasing turns of phrase — one of the best known of which is from the introductory voice-over from all the Star Trek television series: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” (The original series, produced before the more recent sensitivity to gender bias, put it “no man.”)
2. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
This rule is ridiculous, to start with. If you believe it, please tell me what planet you are from. What are you striving for? Give it up. Am I getting my point across?
The stricture against closing sentences with words that describe position stems from an eighteen-century fetish for the supposed perfection of classical Latin, which allowed no split infinitives — for the excellent reason that Latin infinitives consist of single words. English, however, being a distant relative of that language, should be allowed to form its own customs.
3. Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
And why not? For an honorable tradition of doing just that exists. But some people persist in prohibiting this technique. Yet we defy them. Or we simply ignore them or laugh at them, neither of which they appreciate. Nor do they understand our attitude, though we try to convince them, and will continue to do so. So there.
The words beginning each of these sentences are conjunctions, easily recalled with the mnemonic FANBOYS. Every one is perfectly acceptable at the head of a sentence. As is obvious from the previous paragraph, however, a little goes a long way.
4. Distinguish between while and though.
Petty prescriptivists would have you reserve while for temporal usage only: “While I agree, I resist,” they say, should be revised to “Though I agree, I resist.” I freely admit that I often change while to though, and while I understand — I’m sorry, I can’t stop myself — and though I understand that it may seem pedantic, I think though reads better.
5. Distinguish between since and because.
Ditto. And ditto. I concur that indiscriminate replacement of since withbecause may seem persnickety, but since — ahem — because I find the latter word more pleasing, I will reserve the right to prefer it.
6. Use data only in the plural sense.
Where did they get this data? The alternative is to use datum in the singular sense, which makes you sound like a propellerhead. (Look it up, kids.) People who say “datum” get data, but they don’t get dates.
7. Use none only in the singular sense.
None of these rules, followed strictly, allow for a vernacular ease with language.
Did that sentence hurt? Did the waves stop crashing to shore? Did Earth stop spinning? If you wish to replace none with “not one” or “no one” (“Not one person admitted guilt”; “No one saw that coming”), by all means, do so, but fear not none in a plural sense.