Languages are constantly on the move. They perform daily transformations thanks to the various ways people use them and, over time, those minute changes pile up and create something new. This is how we got to Modern English from Old English and the reason why what used to be Latin is now called French, Spanish, Italian, or a host of other Romance languages.
So, change comes naturally to language and it really is what language is supposed to do. However, with the popularisation of printing and more widespread education, somehow people got it into their heads that this transformation should stop. They enforced rules, often based on a single arbitrary dialect, and said that is how language is supposed to be.
However, language is still doing what it’s always done. And that’s why it’s time to take a look at another 5 outdated English grammar rules that you definitely should be ignoring. Be certain to also check out the previous list.
“I before e, except after c”
This is another notorious example of a grammar rule that doesn’t actually work. The rhyming sentence is supposed to serve as a mnemonic when doubting how to spell certain words. When you’re hesitant about whether to write “-ie-” or “-ei-”, you’re only supposed to remember that the i becomes before e (so -ie-), unless there’s a c before them (so, in that case, it would be -ei-).
The problem with this simple rule, though, is that there are as many exceptions to it as there are confirming examples. So, while thief, belief, and chief validate the first part and receive, conceive, and deceit seem to show that everything is good with the second one, there are also as many words that this rule won’t help you spell.
Consider, for example, veil, weird, beige, society, efficient, or science, although the list is much much longer. There are even a couple of words that break both parts of the rule at once, although these aren’t necessarily ones you’ll be using in everyday speech: oneiromancies and eigenfrequencies, for example.
Don’t start your sentence with a conjunction
This rule is another stylistic guideline you should be wary of when writing academic papers or pretty much anywhere else you might be graded based on outdated rules. According to some, it’s inappropriate to begin a sentence with a conjunction. That is, with words like and, because, but, or, although, so, also, if, or while.
It’s possible this rule is first taught to children in school where teachers need a handy way of showing them how to break sentences. Conjunctions can be confusing since they’re used connect clauses within sentences, and so teachers forbid their use in the beginning of sentences altogether. However, once you’re past your ABCs, it’s perfectly fine to start your sentences with And or So.
“They” is a plural-only pronoun
There is a problem in English. Well, there are several problems, actually. But one of them is the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun. This is naturally not an issue limited to English and, in fact, there are several languages where genders play a much prominent role. But, nonetheless, the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun is a problem to be overcome. And one of the ways it has been solved is switching the pronoun “they” from denoting only a group of people to also meaning a single individual.
This, however, is seen as breaking the Rule of Pronouns, or something similar. Detractors argue that using they as a singular pronoun is confusing and unnecessary. What is peculiar about that argument is that the word has been used to denote a lone person since at least the 14th century. And saying you can’t use they in the singular is picking a fight with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Austen, Shaw, and others whose use of English one does not usually argue with.
Who versus whom
To be completely honest, English does recognise whom as a valuable part of its vocabulary. The difference between who and whom is exactly the same as they and them. It is the distinction between a subject and an object: “They saw him.” – “Who saw him?” or “He saw them.” – “Whom did he see?”
However, in everyday language use, when sentences tend to have more than three words, correct usage can get a lot more confusing. When is the last time you heard anyone ask “Whom should we blame for this mess?” or “Whom are you going to believe?”? Hopefully never, because that sounds ridiculously pompous and severely outdated. Not to mention the additional confusion that comes with adding reporting verbs or using whom as a relative pronoun. It just seems much more reasonable to drop the charade altogether and use whatever seems more natural.
Less versus fewer
If you’ve ever been in a supermarket, there’s a high chance you might’ve seen a sign with the words “10 items or less” hanging above one of the registers. And, unless you take grammar very very seriously, this should not faze you, despite the fact the sign is blatantly wrong. The correct phrase would be “10 items or fewer”.
The distinction is supposed to be between things you can count, of which there can be fewer, and things you can’t, which can only be less. So, you can have less snow but fewer snowflakes. Or, unless you’re David Mitchell, you don’t have to care at all and can use the two interchangeably.
Conclusion – Language changes and rules should change with it
Language change is what has brought us from phrases such as Ēadiȝ, þeċ tō mētenne to the Modern English Nice to meet you. It’s impossible to cast languages in stone but, for some reason, there are some who would like to see the natural change in language stop as soon as they’ve mastered it. It is these people who you will most often find bemoaning the state of language as it now exists. But language will keep changing regardless and, soon enough, the “rules” will follow common usage.
This is why rules such as you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction, you can only use they as a plural pronoun, and you should write i before e, except after c are on their way out, together with the distinction between less and fewer, who and whom.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to also check out another four outdated English grammar rules.