From elementary school to English 101 in college, we’re taught certain rules for language and writing. Prescriptive grammar describes how language should be used. These “proper” grammar rules are learned in English classes and delineated in style guides and textbooks. Descriptive grammar, by contrast, describes how language is actually used. Often, lexicographers and dictionaries are the greatest sources of documenting how language is used over time. To the chagrin of some strict teachers, grammar rules are evolving — or even becoming outdated. Let’s be descriptive and take a closer look at the grammar rules that have become more flexible, or even been dropped, over time.
1. Using a Singular “They”
Outdated: Someone left his or her wallet on the counter.
Now acceptable: Someone left their wallet on the counter.
“They” (and by extension “them” and ”their”) is gaining momentum as a singular pronoun for two main reasons: gender inclusivity and grammatical simplicity. But usage of a singular “they” isn’t new. It’s been used this way since at least the 15th century in academic and casual writing — there are examples in the King James Bible (“In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves.” — Philippians 2:3) and from Shakespeare (“God send everyone their heart’s desire.” — Much Ado About Nothing).
No one batted an eye at this usage — that is, until some 18th-century grammarists began rejecting the term. They decreed that a traditionally plural pronoun cannot be matched with a singular antecedent. For many years, “they” was banished from use in a singular sense. Fast-forward several decades, and it’s now a 21st-century buzzword. “They” had a big year in 2019, when Merriam-Webster declared it the Word of the Year, and now most major style guides accept the singular “they.”
2. Using “None” With a Plural Verb
Outdated: None of them is mine.
Now acceptable: None of them are mine.
Strict grammarians may insist that “none” is singular, but “none” can be singular or plural, depending on the context. “None” means “not one (of something)” and is most often used as a pronoun to mean “no one,” “not any,” or “no part” (though it also can be used as an adverb, as in, “I was none the wiser…”). Because of its many uses, it can take on a singular or plural connotation. In singular form, it can look like, “None of the cake was eaten.” “Cake” is singular, so the singular verb “was” can be used alongside “none.” Conversely, “None of the cookies were eaten,” is also correct, because “cookies” is plural, so the plural verb “were” is used.
3. Ending a Sentence With “With” (Or Any Preposition)
Outdated: I don’t have anything with which to write.
Now acceptable: I don’t have anything to write with.
“This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” The former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is often credited with that jumbled remark as a strike against the “no prepositions at the end of a sentence” rule, but historians can’t trace it definitively.
In any case, the example serves as an interesting anecdote in grammar history. For centuries, finishing a sentence with a preposition such as “with,” “of,” “to,” “at,” “for,” “by,” “on,” or “in” was a grammatical sin. A possible source of this rule points to 17th-century poet John Dryden, who lectured fellow poet Ben Jonson on the matter, stating, “The preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him.” Apologies to Dryden, but ending a sentence with a preposition is now completely acceptable, especially if it makes the sentence easier to understand. If you do need a rule to follow, avoid dangling prepositions. For example, “Where are you going to?” is incorrect. The preposition “to” should be dropped, and the correct version is, “Where are you going?”
4. Starting a Sentence With “But” (Or Any Conjunction)
Outdated: Sally believed he was telling the truth, but this was not the case.
Now acceptable: Sally believed he was telling the truth. But this was not the case.
Conjunctions, including “for,” “and,” “nor,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” and “so,” are controversial. Using them at the beginning of a sentence is often seen as a major faux pas. But it has been common practice for centuries, as seen in Shakespearean and biblical writing. Respected authors also employ this stylistic choice for dramatic effect, including F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Starting a sentence with a conjunction allows the audience to pause between thoughts. It can be especially powerful when emphasis is needed, but the effect should be used sparingly.
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