Commentary: Myths About Language Taboos | KERA News

Commentary: Myths About Language Taboos

Dallas, TX – We've been taught a ton of rules about what is correct English. But Commentator Paula LaRocque says you can ignore a few of them.

A common saying in language and writing is that we should know the rules before we break them. But another problem is that what we believe to be rules may not be rules at all. They're instead myths misperceptions and taboos passed on by folks who accept them as fact.

What are some common linguistic myths? Three of the most prevalent are that there's 1) a rule against ending a sentence with a preposition; 2) a rule against beginning a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but; and 3) a rule against splitting an infinitive.

None of that is true, and none of it is supported by experts. If, however, those practices make a sentence ugly or awkward, that's reason enough to avoid them. But that doesn't mean they're wrong in every case.

At this point, you might be saying: But I was taught this! I know. I believe you. But let me say it again: None of that is true, and none of it is supported by language experts. And whoever doubts it can simply look it up. It's high time we stopped scaring people with these bugbears.

Let's look at just that first myth that it's wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.

Winston Churchill a clear, readable, and articulate writer and speaker was once scolded for ending sentences with prepositions. He's alleged to have responded: Madam, this is bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.

That story may be apocryphal, but it makes a solid point. If ending a sentence with a preposition makes the sentence clear and smooth, why make it unclear and rough by conforming to some imaginary rule?

Here's where that imaginary rule would take us. We could no longer say: He knows what he's talking about. We'd have to say, instead: He knows about what he's talking. We couldn't ask, Is Texas the state you come from? We'd have to ask, instead: Is Texas the state from which you come? We couldn't say: I know what you're up to. We'd have to say: I know to what you are up. But wait! That still ends with a preposition. OK, so we'd have to say instead: I know up to what you are.

When citing the so-called "rule" against ending sentences with prepositions, people often use this example: "Where is it at?" But the fault with that sentence is not that it ends with a preposition; it's that it's a gross redundancy. The preposition is unnecessary the sentence should read: "Where is it?" Period.

Maybe you've heard the sentence that ends with five prepositions? It's a question a boy asks his father, who is preparing to read from a book the boy doesn't like. The boy asks: "What did you bring that book I didn't want to be read to out of up for?"

Now . . . I am not advocating that.

Paula LaRocque is an author and writing coach from Arlington. Her latest book, Chalk Line, is a mystery set in Texas. E-mail opinions, questions or rebuttals to this commentary to the "Contact Us" section of KERA.org.