One of the hardest things to teach Freshmen writers is that many of the errors they’ve been taught to fear in high schol are not really errors at all. The phobia surrounding the ending of sentences with prepositions is a perfect example. Students lock up because, first of all, they aren’t sure what a preposition is, and secondly, they can’t figure out why it’s wrong to end a sentence with one. Telling students that prepositions are usually fine at the ends of sentences doesn’t do much to allay their fears.  Which of the old-school rules do they keep and which do they throw away?  There are still some rules, right?

Paul Brians has come up with a helpful list of non-errors in English (as a companion to his list of common errors).  What I like most are the explanations for each entry, which do a great job treating non-errors rhetorically.  Consider the discussion of split infinitives:

For the hyper-critical, “to boldly go where no man has gone before” should be “to go boldly. . . .” It is good to be aware that inserting one or more words between “to” and a verb is not strictly speaking an error, and is often more expressive and graceful than moving the intervening words elsewhere; but so many people are offended by split infinitives that it is better to avoid them except when the alternatives sound strained and awkward.

The problem with a split infinitive isn’t that it’s wrong, it’s that “so many people are offended.”  Are you (the student) in a position where the delicate sensibilities of prescriptive grammarians are something you need to care about?  On the other hand, will your audience read “to go boldly” as an unnecessary stilting of a perfectly natural phrase?  Those are the kinds of distinctions a young writer should be losing sleep over, not correctness vs. incorrectness. 

Brians also introduces the phrase “incorrect hyper-correction” a little later, which is a demon of a phrase I’m going to start inserting into my student comments.  [Via Coudal]

Reader Comments (3)

Of course, this raises the possibility of mistaking actual errors for non-errors, because to discover a non-error is sort of a mark of intelligence (evidence that you know enough to not detect a grammatical mistake). So then, would we call this... uh...?

You know what I mean.

September 15, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterCasey

Sounds like rhetoric to me, Mark. These are rhetorical "errors;" that is, based on the values and expectations of an audience. So they are "real" errors in very meaningful way.

October 26, 2007 | Unregistered Commenternrivers

Boo on rhetoric. Okay, I guess so, but what do we call it when we find our audience's lack of faith disturbing, and go about shifting their grammatological expectations (the way young Michael does with his intermittent spelling)?

I don't want to perpetuate unhelpful grammar-isms just so my kids don't get called out by jerks. I want to fight jerks.

October 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMxrk

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