5 Important Exceptions to Famous Grammar Rules

Friday, July 24 min read

Billions of people around the world speak and study the English language, yet it’s notoriously tricky to master. Some words don’t sound how they’re spelled — like “island” and “sword.” Grammar rules change over time, and pronunciation? Don’t get us started on silent letters like the “h” in “honest” or the “g” in “gnome.”

It seems like English has just as many rules as it does exceptions to those rules. Here are five exceptions to well-known grammar rules to trip up even native English speakers.

Exception 1: “I Before E Except After C”

One of the first spelling rules taught in grade school is a big, fat lie. A few lines were added to try to account for the exceptions, but it doesn’t cover all of them.

“I” before “E,”

except after “C,”

or when sounded as "A,"

as in “neighbor” and “weigh.”

This rule works perfectly well with words such as “field,” “receipt,” “belief,” and “conceit.” But the guidance starts to fall apart with  “science,” “their,” “glacier,” and “weird.”

In fact, Wikipedia has a listing of more than 7,000 English words that do not follow the “I before E except after C” rule. Thank goodness for spell check.

Exception 2: “They”

“They,” “them,” and “their” refer to a group of people. But “they” can also be used when talking about a single person. You may have been taught to use “he” (or even “he or she”) as a generic placeholder if the gender of the person is unknown. But with a push toward more gender-neutral language, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun has gained traction. The American Dialect Society selected “they” as its Word of the Decade for the 2010s.

This isn’t some new-fangled word trend, though. The singular “they” first emerged in the 14th century, and has only been criticized as an error since the 18th century. Writers including Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, and Jane Austen commonly used “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun.

Exception 3: “Me” vs. “I”

Your elementary school teacher probably taught you this rule. When you said, “Me and Joey are gonna play on the swings,” they may have countered, “It’s Joey and I.”

It might have stuck in your head that the rule was: “So-and-So and I.” Since you’re no grammar slouch, you went around saying, “Dad is taking Mindy and I to the store,” or “He picked Marcus and I for the team!”

But in the last two examples, you should use “me” instead of “I.” “Me” is an object pronoun, while “I” is a subject pronoun. Since “me” is being acted upon in those sentences, that’s the correct pronoun.

A simpler way to remember all that? Remove your friend from the sentence. You would say, “I’m going to play on the swings,” but not, “Dad is taking I to the store,” or “He picked I for the team!”

This is maybe not a strict exception to the rule, but more of a misinterpretation. It’s an example of “hypercorrection” — when people misuse a grammar rule because they think it’s a more educated or sophisticated usage.

Exception 4: “Double Negatives”

Here’s another rule your English teachers told you about. Double negatives are no good, very bad, and you should never, ever use them.

You may have been scolded for saying things like, “You don’t know nothing,” or “I don’t wanna go nowhere.” In English, similar to in your math lessons, the assumption is that two negatives form a positive. Take the phrase, “We don’t need no education.” Remove the two negative words that supposedly cancel each other out and you get, “We do need education.” Talk about hidden meanings.

But there are often differences between written and spoken English. In spoken conversation, double negatives are often used for emphasis. “There isn’t no problem” doesn’t mean we’re about to fight. Instead, by using a double negative, it communicates that there are absolutely no worries. It’s all good.

Even famous writers such as William Shakespeare use double negatives. In Twelfth Night, Viola says, "I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth, And that no woman has; nor never none shall be mistress of it.” The use of negatives reinforces the point — the woman on stage is dressed as a man, and she’s pretending to woo a lady. No gal will ever catch her eye.

Exception 5: Irregular Plurals

In most cases, to turn a singular noun into a plural, you add an “s” to the end of the word. Easy peasy! “Cat” becomes “cats.” “Dog” becomes “dogs.” “Goose” becomes … “geese”? Welcome to the world of irregular plurals. There are some rules, but, of course, there are lots and lots of exceptions.

Got a word that ends in an "f” sound, like “knife,” “wife,” or “leaf"? Change the “f” sound to a “v” and add “-es.” “Knife” becomes “knives.” “Wife” turns into “wives,” and “loaf” becomes “loaves.” Then again, “belief” turns into “beliefs,” and more than one “cliff” becomes “cliffs.” Rules are made to be broken.

Some plurals seem to have no rhyme or reason. The plural of “child” is “children.” “Person” is “people.” “Sheep,” “fish,” and “deer”? In a group, they’re still called “sheep,” “fish,” and “deer.” The plural of “box” is “boxes,” but the plural of “ox” is …oxen”? OK, now the English language is just messing with us.

In reality, many of these exceptions to the rules come down to a language of origin. English is a melting pot, with inspiration from many sources, so one rule won’t apply to every word.

Featured image credit: Chinnapong/ iStock

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