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Grammar rules worth breaking

Lest you get the idea that language lovers are a bunch of rule-following prigs, we bring you a special "Grammarians Gone Wild" edition of Words Work.

A person can only trip over the spellings of "leisure" and "weird" and "seize" so many times before a person directs just a smidgen of resentment toward the poor teacher who first taught her the "i before e, except after c" rule.

"After 'c'?" a person wonders. "Really?"

"What about after 'l'? And 'w'? And 's'?," a person wants to holler at—er, mention to—Mrs. Krewer. "Veil! What about veil?"

OK, fine. This person is me. And Mrs. Krewer, the world's sweetest first-grade teacher, does not deserve my wrath. Which is why I turned to some of my favorite grammar experts to vent my frustrations.

Turns out, they're breaking "rules" left and right.

"I hereby decree that it is OK to end a sentence with a preposition," says National Grammar Day founder Martha Brockenbrough. "I'm tired of the convoluted sentences that people unspool when they're trying to follow this non-rule.

"As rules go, this one makes even less sense than avoiding white shoes after Labor Day. People should always avoid white shoes."

Brockenbrough has some language heavies on her side. Oxford Dictionaries (the folks behind Fowler's Modern English Usage and New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors) states plainly on its website: "Ending a sentence with a preposition is a perfectly natural part of the structure of modern English."

So say they:

Good: "They must be convinced of the commitment they are taking on."

Bad: "Of the commitment they are taking on they must be convinced."

(No word on their white shoes policy.)

Speaking of convoluted sentences, Steve Kleinedler, executive editor at American Heritage Dictionary, makes a related plea for simplicity.

"I would like to completely banish the rule against splitting infinitives," he says. "It was invented in order to make English work like Latin, and following it results in sentences that sound unnatural."

(See what he did there with the "completely" in the middle of his "to" and "banish"?)

"Star Trek" gave us our most famous split infinitive: "To boldly go where no man has gone before," with "boldly" splitting "go" from its infinitive-maker, "to."

"No other grammatical issue has so divided the nation since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism," says Fowler's. The usage manual devotes two pages to the topic, before ultimately siding with Kleinedler.

"No absolute taboo should be placed on the use of simple adverbs between the participle "to" and the verbal part of the infinitive," it concludes, quoting "The Spoken Word," lexicographer Robert Burchfield's grammar bible:

"Avoid splitting infinitives whenever possible," Burchfield rules. "But do not suffer undue remorse if a split infinitive is unavoidable for the natural and unambiguous completion of a sentence already begun."

Mignon "Grammar Girl" Fogarty, author of "101 Troublesome Words You'll Master in No Time" (St. Martin's Griffin) and a half-dozen other grammar guides, would like to cut the beleaguered comma some slack.

"You're supposed to put a comma after 'hi' in a salutation: 'Hi, Heidi,'" she says. "It's the same reason you put a comma in a sentence such as 'Let's eat, grandma.' But nobody uses it in salutations, so it looks wrong when you actually do it right.

"I would like to make 'hi' an exception to the direct address comma rule."

I'm inclined to side with Fogarty on this one. Mostly because she's whip-smart and knows grammar inside, outside and upside-down. But also because she helped me out on the "i before e" thing.

"I vaguely recalled that some teaching body decided to scrap the 'i before e' rule, and lo and behold, I was able to find the article," she said, passing along a link to a delightful 2009 story about the British government proposing that primary school teachers in England and Wales stop teaching the mnemonic device.

"The proposal to drop the 'i before e' rule, which has been chanted by children for as long as anyone can remember, has caused near apoplexy among traditionalists," reads the article from The National, an English-language publication in Abu Dhabi.

The article quotes Jack Bovill, chairman of the Spelling Society at the time, supporting a move away from the rule.

"There are so many exceptions that it's not really a rule," he said. "English spelling needs to evolve to suit the people, not for people to evolve to suit it."

hstevens@tribune.com

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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