English grammar can be a point of contention for many people, incorrect grammar even more so. There are enough rules that it can sometimes be difficult to remember what is valid and what isn’t in some cases, but using something in the wrong way can potentially end up making a person come off as ignorant, stupid, or even apathetic. At the same time, the majority of people can probably come up with at least a few rules and instructions for how not to use the language: don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t put this word here or that punctuation mark there, and so on. However, there are some cases where a rule that we’ve been taught (or just kind of know based on hearsay) might not quite hold up, and a particular construction perceived as incorrect might not be as wrong as we think. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I’ve seen plenty of cases where people have used blatantly malformed grammar, and it can range from maddening to unintentionally humorous…but we can talk about those another time. Here are some examples of supposedly incorrect grammar that might actually be perfectly fine, at least in certain contexts.
10) Apostrophes in plurals (occasionally)
Hey, don’t close out that tab yet! It should be pretty common knowledge that one does not form plurals in English with an apostrophe before the S, so indeed, if your local grocery store advertises “apple’s” and “tomato’s”, it is still an abomination and should be treated accordingly. (Upon encountering such detestable constructions, you may wish to writhe on the floor screaming “Ooohh, it burns! The apostrophes…they pierce my soul!“. Provided, that is, that the staff have a sense of humor or you’re not particularly attached to the offending place.) There is, however, one edge case where an apostrophe can be used in a plural form: when pluralizing symbols. In particular, it is usually used with lowercase letters to resolve any potential ambiguity, especially if italics are not available, as in “mind your p’s and q’s”. Whether the apostrophe should be used with uppercase letters (as in “those L’s look like I’s”), numbers (as in “I rolled two 3s and three 5s on the dice”), symbols (as in “fill in this math problem with +’s and -‘s”), or words used as units in themselves (as in “we will learn the do’s and don’ts of this new job”) seems to be a matter of whom you talk to as well as personal preference. I tend to find them easier to read with the apostrophes most of the time, but different style guides suggest otherwise. Of course, apostrophes still aren’t supposed to be used when referring to years, so something like “I’m a ’90s kid, but I prefer the newer technology of the 2010s and am really interested in history from the 1800s” would be considered correct, though I wouldn’t chew you out if you did put apostrophes there in that case (just make sure not to double up on them for “’90s”). This is kind of a weird edge case, though, which is why it is only at #10.
9) “It is I” vs. “It is me”
Now here is one that’s pretty disputed. You may have heard that “It is I” is the correct form and “It is me”/”It’s me” is not. Well…it really depends on where you’re using it. The “It is I” construction is something called a predicate nominative, where the fact that the verb in the sentence is “to be” (or another linking verb, which is a category that also includes verbs such as “become” and “feel”) causes what looks like the object of the verb to be treated as a sort of second subject, though it’s not always easy to tell in English because we don’t have separate forms for subjects and objects (unlike Latin, for instance); pronouns are the only case (unintentional pun…) where it even matters. Because of that, however, the predicate nominative doesn’t really do much in English. Getting back to the presented dilemma, “It is I” is technically considered correct, but it is rarely used in speech; if you’re used to saying “It’s me” and find “It is I” to sound excessively formal (and nobody ever uses the contraction for that either; “It’s I” sounds even worse), then you are definitely not alone. It basically comes down to two things: 1) formal vs. informal context, and 2) prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar. A quick and dirty explanation of the latter for any non-linguists is that, more or less, prescriptive grammar is “the way that is considered correct”, while descriptive grammar is “the way people actually use it”. And since human society, as a rule, is not driven by the best and brightest, the prescriptive side tends to end up winning out, and the language changes as a result. (Your first thought may be something like “Oh, lordy, what if it eventually becomes correct to say ‘I seen’ or use ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’, too?” Maybe it will, and maybe it won’t, but it’s already happened many times in ways that we don’t think about (to name just one, the word “edit” was accepted as a word only after “editor” was). Basically, the fact that hardly anyone ever says “It is I” already puts one of its feet in the grave. If you’re not using it in a formal setting, “It is me” is probably just fine.
8) Flat adverbs
You’ve probably used these, you’ve probably seen them, but you may not even know what they are or that there was a term for them. Well, if not, I am here to enlighten you, but before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story. Most people presumably know that you can (usually) change an adjective into an adverb by adding -ly to it. Some could point out that there are some adverbs that don’t end in -ly, as well as some that don’t even have a corresponding adjective, such as very, well, and soon. Now, is it correct to say “drive fast”? Should that be “drive quickly”? Or how about “work hard”? Or perhaps “go far”, or “shoot straight”? Despite looking like adjectives, these are, in fact, adverbs of a type known as “flat adverbs” because they are the same as their corresponding adjectives. Most of these, you’ll notice, don’t even work with an -ly on the end; “hardly” does, but it means something completely different (and probably not something you want to tell your boss), while things like “fastly” and “straightly” aren’t even words. (It doesn’t help either that a few words end in -ly that aren’t adverbs, such as “lonely” and “family”.) So you can say “walk slow” without it being incorrect, though I’ll admit “slowly” sounds better there.
7) “I am good”
Some people will argue that one should not say “I am good” (in response to a question such as “How are you?”, for instance) but rather “I am well”, possibly because “good” is an adjective and “well” is usually an adverb. This seems to be some sort of hypercorrection: notice that the “well” in “I am well” is still an adjective, and an adverb wouldn’t even fit in the sentence there. This becomes obvious if we try substituting words that are more evidently one or the other. “I am happy”, “I am tired”, and “I am anxious” are all fine, while “I am happily” clearly isn’t. These are examples of predicate adjectives, and they are related to the type of verb I mentioned back in #9: linking verbs, which contrast with action verbs. (Perhaps you thought that all verbs described an action…even the Schoolhouse Rock song about them did nothing to contradict this assumption. But no, linking verbs describe an association between the subject and predicate, or a state. They are also known as copulas, though “copula” usually refers specifically to the verb “to be”.) Another criticism of “I am good” is that it really means that you’re a good person, which is equally nonsensical. Words have multiple meanings, and claiming that “I am good” really must mean “I am morally upstanding” has no more basis in reason than claiming that “I am cold” really means that I’m a blunt and unfeeling person, or that “I am depressed” means that I’ve been squished down by something. It is true that if someone asks “How are you doing?” and you respond likewise, “I am doing [something]”, then well would be correct, since “doing” is an action verb and therefore requires an adverb (so “I am doing well”), unless you mean “I am doing good” in the sense of good deeds. For simply “How are you?”, though, you may say “I am well” if you’re referring to your health (for instance, “I finally got over my sore throat, so I am well”), but for a general state of being, “I am good” is just fine.
6) Latin- and Greek-derived plurals
Well, some of them, anyway. There are certain nouns we have that clearly appear to be derived from Latin, usually by virtue of ending with -us, and some of these pluralize according to expected Latin rules; “alumnus”, for instance, becomes alumni. There are at least a few cases, however, where either the Latin-derived plural—with the -us becoming -i—or the regular English one is acceptable, as with “radius” (“radii”/”radiuses”) and “cactus” (“cacti”/”cactuses”). More importantly, there are some words that actually aren’t intended to form plurals that way at all. A readily accessible example is “octopus”, which looks Latin but is actually derived from Greek (were it Latin, it would be “octoped”), and as a result, rather than “octopi”, the plural technically should be “octopodes”. (Even classical Latin did actually borrow words from Greek on occasion, though it’s anyone’s guess how people back then felt about such a thing, or about confusing Greek with Latin. I can only assume that mistaking a Greek speaker for a Latin one would be sort of a first- or second-millennium B.C. equivalent of showing up to a St. Patrick’s Day party with a kilt and bagpipes.) The regular plural “octopuses” is also accepted. (If you care to know, there are three possible Latin noun declensions that can end in -us, and only one of them, the second declension, actually forms plurals with -i. “Octopus”, or octōpūs, is actually a viable word in Latin, albeit a modern one, but it is a third-declension noun, and indeed, the plural is octōpodēs.) The word “platypus” follows the same pattern, though it is less well known. The word “virus” is pluralized perfectly regularly as “viruses”, and it is kind of a weird case. In Latin, it’s a mass noun that can mean “poison” or “venom”, and it actually didn’t even have a plural form, for the same reason we wouldn’t usually pluralize a word like “wheat” or “milk” in English. (Word nerds might care to know that it is also a neuter second-declension noun, which so rarely end in -us that rules for such a case are difficult to define.) In summary…there are indeed some English words that are derived from Latin, end in -us, and can or do form plural forms ending in -i, but if somebody tries to call you out on “octopuses”, “platypuses”, or “viruses” and claim that the correct form is “octopi” or the like, they’re talking out of their butt.
5) Singular “they”
Here is another controversial one. Some people will say that “they” cannot be used as a singular pronoun (for instance, “Any person interested in the school play should decide ahead of time if they would like to audition in the morning or the afternoon”) and that “he or she” should be used instead, or sometimes just “he”. Despite the singular “they” often being considered ungrammatical, however, you might be surprised to learn that such usage is not as recent of a development as might be assumed; “they” has been used as a singular pronoun as far back as the 1300s. In fact, the word “you” wasn’t always considered singular either; back in the old days of knights, castles, and tuberculosis, rather than “you” being used for both singular and plural as it is now, “you” was exclusively the plural form, and the singular was “thou” or “thee”. I suppose second-person plural pronouns—always a mess—are a topic for another day, but if “you” can change that way and become accepted, why not “they” as well? At this point, though, it is still considered somewhat informal, and in a more formal context, it would probably be better to use “he or she” or reword the sentence to use a plural noun instead. (I actually used just such a sentence at the end of the previous entry, and I could have changed it, but I thought it would make a nice lead-in.) Another case where “they” can be used as a singular pronoun is if a person doesn’t identify as male or female. (That may seem unlikely or strange, but I have encountered, at the least, two such people in real life, two online, and one in fiction/popular media.) “They” seems to be a common preferred pronoun for nonbinary people, and I would consider it a valid justification even in formal writing if you absolutely must refer to a singular pronoun. (If someone complains, try using the wrong pronouns for them for a bit and see how they like it. See, I just did it again.) And this usage, again, may be older than we think; one source dates it back to at least 1950. Singular “they” may sound ungrammatical, but it’s likely not going away any time soon, nor becoming less accepted.
4) Ending sentences with prepositions
If there’s one thing prepositions are known for, it may well be that ending sentences with them is ungrammatical…supposedly. There are even jokes told about the subject. This, however, is one of those rules that was kind of just made up. In this case, it’s because people thought that since Latin was the prestigious language, the language that smart people knew, and something of a role model, English grammar should follow it more closely rather than the Germanic grammar of its ancestry. Now, if you’ve studied any amount of Latin at all, you can probably guess that this is not the case. In Latin, prepositions aren’t supposed to go at the ends of sentences, but it is, for the most part, just fine to do in English because English isn’t Latin or even based on it (as the Romance languages—such as Spanish and Italian—are). It would be as silly as trying to fit German or Dutch into a Latin paradigm. There is a quote supposedly from Winston Churchill that goes “This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”, referring to a hypercorrection that someone else had suggested for a sentence in order to avoid the preposition being at the end. While almost certainly misattributed (and occasionally phrased differently, such as with “tedious nonsense” or “the sort of English”), it’s still a valid bit of linguistic humor, though interestingly, the “with” here isn’t actually being used in “that way”; it doesn’t “count” as the same kind of “with” used in a sentence such as “Whom are you going with?”. “Put up with” is a construction called a phrasal verb, where what looks like a preposition is actually tied to the verb phrase as part of an idiom. Similar phrasal verbs include “stand for”, “throw up”, “carry on”, and “look forward to”. Of course, it would still probably be best in formal contexts to reword such a sentence so that the preposition does not need to be at the end. Ending sentences with unnecessary prepositions is also a bad idea; in something like “Where are you at?”, the “at” can be left out entirely and the sentence still means the same thing, and in fact, the preposition here is redundant because “where” already indicates a place, so I would consider that construction ungrammatical. Otherwise, you can rest assured that prepositions are just fine to end sentences with.
3) Split infinitives
An infinitive is a type of verb form, usually considered the “base” one, and in English, an infinitive is the one that starts with “to”: “to write”, “to do”, “to eat”, “to honk”, “to explode”, etc. And since English infinitives are two words, putting one or more words in between—thereby “splitting” the infinitive—has been frowned upon. The tagline from Star Trek, where the narrator says “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, is a commonly cited example. Once again, however, there is no real basis for this in English grammar, and once again, it is a rule basically made up by people who wanted English to be more like Latin. See, the split infinitive rule is easy in Latin, because Latin infinitives are a single word. Where we would say “to write” or “to love”, Latin would say scrībere or amāre, which you might notice can’t exactly be split. It quite simply isn’t possible to say “to boldly go” in Latin, no more than it would be possible to say “I am fart loudly ing” in English. And as I said in the last entry, English grammar is English, not Latin (insert your own “Longcat” reference here). There are also at least a few cases where the sentence can’t easily be reworded to remove a split infinitive while still maintaining the intended meaning (for instance, “I want to actually watch Avatar: The Last Airbender rather than just hearing about it all the time”). It’s another made-up rule that doesn’t really reflect actual usage, so as long as you’re not trying to be formal (that formal writing just ruins everything, doesn’t it?) or doing it just for kicks and giggles, by all means, split infinitives if you deem it necessary.
2) Starting sentences with conjunctions
Just to round things out, here is yet another oft-cited grammar rule that has its roots in Latin despite not really being necessary in English. Sheesh, I like Latin and all, and frankly, I’d kind of rather be speaking it than English (we get a proper future tense, among other concise word forms that English doesn’t have? sign me up), but its adherents back in the days of yore might have been a bit pretentious. Even back in the 17th or 18th century, people brought their fandoms into everything. It would be an interesting thought experiment, though, seeing how Latin would handle modern vernacular. (I think “ragequit” would be something like furordēsinere, while “git gud, noob”—with deliberate misspellings corrected—could be translated as “perītēsce, novīcie“, but don’t quote me on that.) Anyway…this one, honestly, is fairly easy to overlook, and in fact, I’ve done it several times in this article already. You may have heard that one should not begin a sentence with a conjunction such as “and”, “but”, or “so”. In reality, doing so is considered perfectly reasonable by most style guides, though, of course, it can be overdone like anything else. Often, as with the split infinitives, there isn’t a good way to reword a sentence to avoid the leading conjunction, and sometimes it just flows better, especially when there would otherwise be an excessively long and complicated sentence that could simply be broken up at one of the conjunctions.
1) Sentence adverbs
Finally, we arrive at this. What would you say to a sentence such as “Hopefully, we are done for now”? A lot of people seem to think that the “hopefully” there is being misused and that it should only be used to mean “in a hopeful manner”, as in “She asked her grandmother hopefully if they could make cookies”. Nope. If it were incorrect, it wouldn’t be on this list, let alone at #1. The “hopefully” in the first sentence is called a sentence adverb, which, as you might guess, modifies the entire sentence rather than just a certain adjective or verb. Sentence adverbs are used as a comment about the speaker or writer’s feelings toward the rest of the sentence; “hopefully, we are done for now” basically means “I hope that we are done for now”. The thing I find weird about the whole situation is that “hopefully” seems to be the only adverb that gets called out for this, even though there are others that function the same way: “mercifully”, “luckily”, “sadly”, “unfortunately”, and the like. (Try out some example sentences: the “unfortunately” in “Unfortunately, the cat ran off with my pants” can be stated as “It is unfortunate that…”, for instance.) Yet none of those seem to get the negative press that “hopefully” does. That as much as anything else might clue you in that the whole thing is a load of baloney. Sentence adverbs might not look or act the way we might be used to adverbs acting, but there is nothing wrong with them. (Outside of formal writing, that is, and since I’ve given that as a qualifier for several of these, I will say right now that even in that case, it’s still more misguided pedantry than any meaningful linguistic paradigm.)
With that, I’ve said my piece. What’s your opinion on the things that I have enumerated here? Can you think of any other cases of a supposed rule of language that, upon closer inspection, are merely a myth? Feel free to reply in the comments.