Rules of Writing to Disregard?


Bill Vallicella, an estimable blogger-philosopher, with whom I almost always agree (and always respect) endorses Benjamin Dreyer’s “Three Writing Rules to Disregard“. Dreyer says some sensible things; for example:

A good sentence … is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.

So far, so good. What about the three rules to be disregared? They are:

1. Never begin a sentence with “And” or “But.”

2. Never split an infinitive.

3. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

At my page, “Writing: A Guide“, I address only the second of Dreyer’s candidates for neglect. I will come to it in due course, after I size up Dreyer’s first and third candidates.

In the case of number 1, Dreyer sets up a straw person. It has been a very long time since a respected grammarian railed against the use of “And” or “But” at the start of a sentence. Wilson Follett says this in Modern American Usage: A Guide (1966):

A prejudice lingers from the days of schoolmarmish rhetoric that a sentence should not begin with and. The supposed rule is without foundation in grammar, logic, or art. And can join separate sentences and their meanings just as well as but can both join sentences and disjoin meanings. The false rule used to apply to but equally; it is now happily forgotten. What has in fact happened is that the traditionally acceptable but after a semicolon has been replaced by the same but after a period. Let us do the same thing with and, taking care, of course, not to write long strings of sentences each headed by And or by But.

That’s essentially Dreyer’s advice. Score one for Dreyer.

What about ending a sentence with a preposition? Bryan A Garner, a worthy successor to Follett, says this in Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009):

The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar, in which a preposition was the one word that a writer could not end a sentence with….

The idea that a preposition is ungrammatical at the end of a sentence is often attributed to 18th-century grammarians. But [there it is] that idea is greatly overstated. Bishop Robert Lowth, the most prominent 18th-century grammarian, wrote that the final preposition “is an idiom, which our language is strongly inclined to: it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing.”…

Perfectly natural-sounding sentences end with prepositions, particularly when a verb with a preposition-particle appears at the end (as in follow up or ask for). E.g.: “The act had no causal connection with the injury complained of.”

Garner goes on to warn against “such … constructions as of which, on which, and for which” that are sometimes used to avoid the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence. He argues that

“This is a point on which I must insist” becomes far more natural as “This is a point that I must insist on.”

Better yet: “I must insist on the point.”

Avoiding the sentence-ending preposition really isn’t difficult (as I just showed), unnatural, or “bad”. Dreyer acknowledges as much:

Ending a sentence with a preposition (as, at, by, for, from, of, etc.) isn’t always such a hot idea, mostly because a sentence should, when it can, aim for a powerful finale and not simply dribble off like an old man’s unhappy micturition. A sentence that meanders its way to a prepositional finish is often, I find, weaker than it ought to or could be.

What did you do that for?

is passable, but

Why did you do that?

has some snap to it.


Dreyer tries to rescue the sentence-ending preposition by adding this:

But to tie a sentence into a strangling knot to avoid a prepositional conclusion is unhelpful and unnatural, and it’s something no good writer should attempt and no eager reader should have to contend with.

He should have followed his own advice, and written this:

But to tie a sentence into a strangling knot to avoid a prepositional conclusion is unhelpful and unnatural. It’s something that no good writer should attempt, nor foist upon the eager reader.

See? No preposition at the end, and a punchier paragraph (especially with the elimination of Dreyer’s run-on sentence).

I remain convinced that the dribbly, sentence-ending preposition is easily avoided. And, by avoiding it, the writer or speaker conveys his meaning more clearly and forcefully.

Score one against Dreyer (and Garner).

Here comes the tie-breaker — the rule (or non-rule) about splitting infinitives.

Dreyer and Garner’s exemplar is “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, from the original Star Trek series.

What is wrong with “to go boldly”? Nothing. In fact, it makes more sense.

Why? Consider adjectives, which precede nouns in English. There’s no reason that adjectives couldn’t follow nouns (as in some other languages), but the English-speaking person has become accustomed to the adjective-noun sequence. It is “natural”.

By the same token, the verb-adverb sequence has become natural to the English-speaker. Thus, for example:

applaud loudly

bend sharply

caress softly

dance wildly.

And on and on. (There are cases in which the adverb more comfortably precedes the verb, but their occurrence doesn’t negate what follows.)

Why, then, should one say or write “to loudly applaud”, “to sharply bend”, etc., etc., contrary to the the natural practice? If it is natural to say “go boldly”, “to go boldly” is just as natural.

In fact, putting the adverb behind the verb emphasizes boldness, which is the intended effect. The Star Trek construction (and others like it) de-emphasizes boldness, contrary to the “inventive” writer’s aim.

What do Follett and Garner say?

Follett defends the occasional use of the split infinitive, but without getting down to cases. So, unusually for me, I will disregard him in this matter.

Garner defends the occasional use of the split infinitive, and gives examples of its proper use, in addition to the indefensible Star Trek usage. One example is “She expects to more than double her profits next year.” There’s something fishy about that one. Specifically, the verb in the sentence is “expects”, what follows (“to more than double…”) is an adjunct to the verb. It is a prepositional object (introduced by “to”), in which “more than” modifies “double”. The example, in other words, is irrelevant.

Garner offers other examples, most of which are either false (as above) or inferior to alternatives in which infinitives are not split.

In truth, there is a paucity of cases in which the best way to express an idea clearly requires the splitting of an infinitive. Thus the correct rule: It is rare that an idea can be expressed most clearly by splitting an infinitive; the practice is therefore wisely avoided, except by skilled writers.

Score another one against Dreyer, who is an infinitive-splitting absolutist.

The following quotation from “Writing: A Guide” should put a stake through it:

Consider the case of Eugene Volokh, a known grammatical relativist, who scoffs at “to increase dramatically” — as if “to dramatically increase” would be better. The meaning of “to increase dramatically” is clear. The only reason to write “to dramatically increase” would be to avoid the appearance of stuffiness; that is, to pander to the least cultivated of one’s readers.

Seeming unstuffy (i.e., without standards) is neither a necessary nor sufficient reason to split an infinitive. The rule about not splitting infinitives, like most other grammatical rules, serves the valid and useful purpose of preventing English from sliding yet further down the slippery slope of incomprehensibility than it has slid.

If an unsplit infinitive makes a clause or sentence seem awkward, the clause or sentence should be recast to avoid the awkwardness. Better that than make an exception that leads to further exceptions — and thence to Babel.

[Fowler’s] Modern English Usage [link] counsels splitting an infinitive where recasting doesn’t seem to work:

We admit that separation of to from its infinitive is not in itself desirable, and we shall not gratuitously say either ‘to mortally wound’ or ‘to mortally be wounded’…. We maintain, however, that a real [split infinitive], though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, and to patent artificiality…. We will split infinitives sooner than be ambiguous or artificial; more than that, we will freely admit that sufficient recasting will get rid of any [split infinitive] without involving either of those faults, and yet reserve to ourselves the right of deciding in each case whether recasting is worth while. Let us take an example: ‘In these circumstances, the Commission … has been feeling its way to modifications intended to better equip successful candidates for careers in India and at the same time to meet reasonable Indian demands.’… What then of recasting? ‘intended to make successful candidates fitter for’ is the best we can do if the exact sense is to be kept… [P. 581]

Good try, but not good enough. This would do: “In these circumstances, the Commission … has been considering modifications that would better equip successful candidates for careers in India and at the same time meet reasonable Indian demands.”

Enough said? I think so.