Many well-meaning but misinformed grammarians and language purists argue in favor of prescriptive grammatical rules. The English language has no shortage of prescriptions, or rules about what to do and what not to do. 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, making the prescriptions obsolete at best and a little silly at worst. The following sections describe some of rules for the most common English errors as well as why those mistakes are actually non-errors that only sometimes need to be followed.
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.
Less and Fewer
Although some writers on the subject state that the difference between less and fewer is one of singularity versus plurality, the difference in use is actually about count nouns versus noncount nouns. A count noun is a noun that can be counted: dog, keyboard, cellphone, leaf. A noncount noun is a noun that cannot be counted: rice, coffee, tea, furniture. One can speak of one dog or two dogs but not one rice and two rices (unless, of course, one is speaking about types of rices, which changes the noun rice from a noncount to a count noun).
The prescriptive rule, therefore, for less and fewer is use less with noncount nouns and fewer with count nouns; for example, less coffee but fewer leaves. However, this rule is the first grammar rule that should only sometimes be followed. By looking at the use of English by native speakers, one will see that native English speakers use less with count nouns all the time; for example, ten items or less and 140 characters or less. The only time that one should be careful about distinguishing between less and fewer is when writing in the most formal registers; in other words, formal documents such as academic papers. Otherwise, English speakers should feel no qualms about use less with count nouns.
Adjectives and Adverbs
Generations of teachers and parents have scolded children and students for uttering sentence such as The test went bad today and He dug deeper into the problem. The reason: Prescriptive grammars forbid the use of adjectives in place of adverbs. Instead of the adjectives bad and deeper, an English speaker could also say badly and more deeply.
However, the second rule that English speakers can sometimes ignore is the rule against using adjectives as adverbs. As with many categories of grammatical forms in English, the line between adjective and adverb is blurry at best. In Old English, for example, distinguishing an adjective from an adverb is sometimes possible only with the context of a sentence; for example, mislice means either “diverse” or “diversely” depending on the context. So, again, unless writing in the most formal registers, English speakers can choose to use adjectives as adverbs.
Lots and Til
To the chagrin of many prescriptivists, the majority of English speakers at least occasionally use lots in place of a lot and til in place of until. At the same time, however, one rarely if never hears complaints about the use of math instead of mathematics or gym instead of gymnasium. Clipping—a word formation process in which a word is reduced or shortened without changing the meaning of the word—is a perfectly cromulent way in which new words become part of the English language, so do some prescriptivists wield so much animosity towards lots and til?
The most common argument against lots and til is laziness and corruption. “Saying a lot and until is just one more syllable,” argue prescriptive grammarians, “Stop being so lazy. Stop corrupting the English language.” Like with other clippings including math and gym, as lots and til continued to be used in English by native speakers, the animosity towards both forms will eventually lessen and then stop completely. In the meanwhile, however, English speakers can rest assured that sometimes using lots and til is grammatically acceptable.
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, using only the relative pronoun which in nonrestrictive clauses, distinguishing between fewer and less, distinguishing between adjectives and adverbs, and using a lot and until instead of lots and til, all four of these grammar rules are linguistic non-errors that fail to stand the test of actual language use by native English speakers. Native speakers of English can and do use all seven constructions in their use of the English language. Therefore, English language users can rest assured that their failure to follow these prescriptive rules at all times is absolutely grammatically acceptable.