10 grammar rules for super-geeks

Many of the stricter rules of grammar have fallen by the wayside – but true grammar geeks just can’t let go. Here are 10 for the truly committed…

Photo of a koala to illustrate a blog post about clinging onto grammar rulesPhotograph by Jordan Whitt

It’s become deeply unfashionable to get wound up about grammar rules. Linguists argue that regional variations render certain usages as “non-standard” rather than wrong, that language evolves, and that the meanings of words change over time. Others simply insist that if what you are saying is clear and unambiguous, it doesn’t matter if you break a supposed rule.

While I would agree that many of the things that were once frowned upon (splitting infinitives, starting a sentence with “and” or “but”, ending a sentence with a preposition) are completely fine (and in many cases preferable), I would also argue that there’s more to language than basic communication. Great writing has an elegance and beauty borne of fluency, precision and economy of expression – and following the rules of grammar is surely the first step to achieving that. Contrary to popular belief, most grammar rules have a logical basis and, when those rules are ignored, sentence structure goes awry and that elegance is lost. You might not know the rules, but you can feel a neatly constructed sentence that has been composed using a logical, highly evolved system. I think we have an affinity for well ordered communication – when we can convey exactly what we’re thinking, or understand exactly what someone else is saying, we experience a sense of satisfaction that feels comfortable, reassuring and deeply gratifying.

More prosaically, once you have been told a grammar rule and become used to it, it’s very hard to unsee/unhear it. When the rule is broken it trips you up and, to your ears, sounds clunky and awkward – even though you know that the rest of the world has MOVED ON.

So, as this may be my last post for a couple of weeks (school holidays…), I thought I would indulge myself a little and share the grammar rules that I’m still clinging onto (all alone on my little grammar raft). I know that language shifts and changes as its users do, and that’s fine. But I still love the linguistic logic and order that grammar rules reflect – so today I offer you this unapologetic celebration of grammatical pedantry. Let’s go.

1. Past/last
“The last five years” means the final five years of someone’s life, or imprisonment, or employment, or whatever. So you can only use “last” when something has come to an end or has a finite time span. If the event or situation is ongoing then the correct word is “past”. “She has been living in France for the past five years”; “He has been considering his options for the past three days.” However, it’s safe to say that very few people abide by this rule, darn it.

2. Try to, different from, compare with…
Verbs and adjectives usually take a specific preposition. This is not an arbitrary rule – there are logical reasons. For instance, the preposition “from” suggests a distance between two things – they are moving away from each other. Whereas “to” suggests similarity or closeness – they are moving towards each other. So we say that something is different from something else or that two things are similar to each other. (Not different to – see how wrong that sounds now you KNOW?) You also compare something to something else if you are suggesting that they are alike in some way – the famous example being Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” If you are emphasising difference, then you compare with: “This year’s figures are promising, compared with last year’s.”

Here are a few more:
arise from (not out of)
bored with (not of)
centre on (not around)
correspond with (a person), to (a thing)
die of (not from)
fed up with (not of)
independent of (not from)
part from (a person), with (a thing)
reconcile with (a person), to (a thing)

A similar problem arises with “try and” (“I will try and get in touch with her later”). In fact, this is not to do with prepositions. “And” is a conjunction – but what you need here is actually “try” followed by the infinitive form of the verb (that specifies whatever it is you are trying to do). Cast your mind back to your GCSE French lessons and you’ll remember that the infinitive form is the “to” form – to jump, to help, to find – ie, the base form of the verb when used without any connection to person, time or number. It is the infinitive form that must come after the verb “to try”, whatever the tense: “He is trying to climb up that tree”; “They tried to call the fire brigade”. The simple present and future tenses are no different: “We try to do our best”; “He will try to find a suitable candidate for the post”. Never “try and” – it makes no sense. Think of it this way – change the word “try” to “attempt”: “We will attempt and find it by this afternoon”? Exactly.

3. Who/whom
This one’s a losing battle – I’ve even worked on magazines that ban the use of “whom” on the basis that it sounds old-fashioned and “no one uses it any more”. Well, I disagree – I think it sounds pleasing and elegant. What annoys me is that it’s not even that hard to understand. “Whom” relates to “who” as “him” relates to “he”. He does something; something is done to him. “He” is the subject of a sentence, “him” is the object. In the same way, we talk about a man who does something, and a man to whom something is done: “Her team includes an experienced lawyer, whom she has appointed as chairman of the committee”; “The man, whom we had called Bob, turned out to be a fraudster”. The lawyer and the man are the objects of the sentence, so they take “whom”. If you’re not sure, double check by rephrasing that part of the sentence using “him”: “She made him chairman”‘; “We called him Bob” – it’s “him” not “he”, so it’s “whom” not “who”.

4. Like/such as
These are easy to muddle up, but they have different functions. “Like” makes a comparison: “Manatees, like dolphins, are mammals that live in the sea.” Whereas “such as” introduces examples: “Marsupials, such as kangaroos, wallabies and koalas, carry their young in a pouch.”

5. All of, off of
As in, “He ate all of his dinner” and “They took 20 per cent off of the price.” In both cases the “of” is redundant: “He ate all his dinner” and “They took 20 per cent off the price” are correct.

6. Over/more than
There is a very old-fashioned grammar rule – popularised by the Associated Press style guide – that “more than” not “over” should be used when referring to numbers (because “over” is more suggestive of physical position). As in “More than 100 people attended the party” or “More than £5,000 was raised at the fair.”  Even AP has recently relented on this and yet… I can’t help thinking that “more than” sounds more elegant. “Over 100 people…” “Over £5,000…” Ick. Is it just me?

7. Former and latter
They refer specifically to two things, not more than two. Former is the first, latter the second. That’s it.

8. Shall/will
In the first person (“I” and “we”), the future tense of the verb “will” is “shall”: “I shall do it tomorrow”; “We shall see him later”. All other pronouns take “will”: “She will try again in the morning”; “They will organise a leaving party for the end of the month”. However, this rule is often inverted for the sake of emphasis: “I will have a job by the end of this week!”; “You shall go to the ball!”

These days, however, very few people use “shall”. This is because, when contracted, both “will” and “shall” sound the same: “I’ll do it tomorrow”; “She’ll try again in the morning”. And so the distinction has been lost. Sad face.

9. The subjunctive
The subjunctive mood suggests hypothesis – something that may or may not happen, something recommended or imagined – and, this being the case, the first and third person should take “were” and not “was”. “If I were you”, “If that were the situation”, “If he were to move to Spain…” It’s not commonly used in everyday speech any more, but apparently scientists use it all the time. Yay the scientists!

10. This/that
“This” refers to the present or future, “that” refers back to the past. So in a sentence you use “that” to refer to something you have mentioned previously: “Our aim is to teach all the children to swim, and the new funding should help us to achieve that“; “The committee voted to repair the existing structure and we intend to move ahead with that.” To me those sentences sound correct (those not these – same rule!), but when I correct this to that at work I’m usually overruled, which makes me think that no one else is with me on that one…

Are you clinging on to any much loved grammar rules? Do you still abide by any of the above? I’d love to know that I’m not alone, so please comment below or on The Wordy House Facebook page.


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