There is no shortage of prescriptive rules — rules about what to do and what not to do — for the English language. However, not all grammar rules are created equally. In fact, many of the most widely cited prescriptive rules for English fail to reflect actual language use by native English speakers. The following sections describe some of rules for the most common English errors as well as why those mistakes are actually non-errors.
Ending Sentences with Prepositions
One of the most widely circulated prescriptive rules for the English language is the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. Like the majority of language prescriptions for English, however, the rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is wrong. All native speakers of English end sentences with prepositions. For example:
- What time did the baby wake up?
- Who did you give the scarf to?
- Where is the library at?
In other words, prepositions are perfectly fine words to end sentences with.
When Gene Roddenberry made the statement about “to boldly go where no man has gone before” in the title sequence of Star Trek, prescriptive grammarians rolled over in their graves. Another well-known proscription for the English language is to not split infinitives. However, like with the rule against ending sentences with prepositions, all native speakers of English split infinitives. For example:
- The women decided to not go to the concert.
- Prices are expected to more than double in the next year.
- To accidentally split an infinitive is no big deal.
Relativizing with Who and That
A third prescriptive rule governs the use of the relative pronouns who and that in relative clauses, which are also referred to as adjective clauses. The prescriptive rule states that who should be used for people and that should be used for places and things. However, in actual language use, that is also used with people. For example:
- The woman that stole my bike is your neighbor.
- I love the man that sells apples in the park.
- Harry Potter is the boy that lived.
Modifying with That and Which
Similar to the rule for the relative pronouns who and that is the rule governing the use the relative pronouns that and which in adjective clauses. According to the prescriptive rule, use that for restrictive clauses and which for nonrestrictive clauses. The difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses is that restrictive clauses are essential to the meaning of the sentence while nonrestrictive clauses are optional and just provide supplementary information. However, in reality, which may be used in both restrictive and nonrestrictive noun clauses. For example:
- The object that hit me on the head was a piece of granite.
- The object which hit me on the head was a piece of granite.
- I really liked that cake that you brought.
- I really liked the cake which you brought.
Although prescriptive grammarians still vehemently support the rules about not ending sentences with prepositions, not splitting infinitives, using only the relative pronoun that for people, and using only the relative pronoun which in nonrestrictive clauses, all four of these grammar rules are linguistic non-errors. Native speakers of English can and do use all four constructions in their use of the English language.