Wednesday, January 21, 2009

English Language: Grammar Myths

"Never split an infinitive!"
"Never end a sentence with a preposition!"
"Never start a sentence with a conjunction!"

Grammar is scary! So many rules, and so few people who really understand them. Don't feel bad if you feel like you can't get to grips with English grammar. I teach the stuff, and I still look to my grammar reference on a regular basis. Who has room in their head for so many rules - especially when they're constantly changing!

Many grammar rules, like the commands above, are generally accepted to be outdated. Winston Churchill's famous quote,"This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put!" argues the point for terminal prepositions rather well. And if I were to stop starting sentences with conjunctions, it would be very hard to write blog posts in a nice conversational style.

All of this said, there are still some grammar rules which are important to know and practice. Here in Singapore, some rules have been dissected and then overgeneralized, resulting in several English grammar myths. Let's expose two of these myths today and set the record straight.

Myth #1: To make a singular noun plural, just add 's'
A day does not pass in Singapore where I don't hear informations, paperworks, advices, staffs, baggages and/or fruits.

Myth buster: There are two kinds of nouns that do not change in the plural: collective nouns and uncountable nouns.

Collective nouns are nouns that refer to a group of people: staff, management, crew, audience, etc.
You cannot say, "My staffs are very hardworking."
A correct option would be, "The members of my staff are hardworking."

Uncountable nouns are exactly what their name implies - nouns that can't be counted. If you can't count something, you can't make it plural and therefore, can't add an 's.' Make sense? Some good examples are paperwork, information, and advice. They are things like abstract ideas (progress), commodities (oil) and substances (water). So how do we show that these words are plural? We need to add determiners - little words or phrases that give meaning to the number of nouns we are talking about. So, information becomes a lot of information, tons of information or just a piece of information.

Myth #2: Verbs never take 's'
Although here in Singapore everyone likes to add the letter S to nouns, very few people like adding S to verbs. This is a real problem, especially in the third person singular, which, in normal English, means when we talk about he, she or it. I am convinced that this mistake happens not because Singaporeans don't know the rule, but because in conversation it is pretty normal to drop "useless" word endings like 't,' 'd,' and unfortunately, the beloved 's.' That's why we hear people say things like, "He take the bus to work," "She like him," "It make me happy."

Myth buster: Whenever we talk about he, she or it, we absolutely must, without exception, add an 's' to the verb. It will always be, "He takes the bus to work," "She likes him," and "It makes me happy."

What other myths can you think of? Are there any grammar points that get you confused? Leave your comments and I'll try to address them in future posts.

If you would rather have me walk you through these points personally, make sure to register for my new workshop, "Get to Grips with Grammar." I know you don't believe me, but I really do make grammar fun! Come join us!


  1. I like the myths that you "busted." However, I don't think grammar rules are constantly changing. This is a misnomer.

    It is not proper to split infinitives or have a preposition without an object. (This rule is misapplied when people fail to see that some prepositions may be used as adverbs.)

    The ban on starting new sentences with conjunctions goes back to the days when people bothered to use semicolons.

  2. Thanks for the comments, CNEIL!

    Note taken - the rules don't change, but our acceptance of them does. Each group of English speakers makes their own rules as to what is "proper," don't they?

    Interesting point about conjunctions. I hadn't heard that before. It definitely makes sense!