Bad Grammar vs. Bad Thinking

Here’s something troubling I saw on Quora.com recently. Someone asked whether it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition. A self-proclaimed authority (who should know better!) came out strongly against the practice. What really bothered me is not just that he’s wrong (more about that in a moment). It’s an additional claim he made: bad grammar causes bad thinking.

But it seems to make sense, doesn’t it? You can’t possibly think clearly if you don’t know how to construct sentences properly.

He’s still wrong – in multiple ways. First, the question about a preposition has nothing to do with grammar. In fact most writing issues have nothing to do with grammar. There’s no grammatical reason why you can’t use ain’t in professional writing, for example. A sentence with ain’t can be diagrammed beautifully. Ain’t is bad usage – a completely different category.

Very few writing mistakes fall into the grammar category: misplaced modifiers, subject-verb agreement and a few other verb issues, and some pronoun problems. That’s about it. English lost most of its formal grammar a thousand years ago. Today our grammar is largely about word order, and most native speakers master it by the time they’re four or five years old.

Usage, on the other hand, is a vast topic that you can study (as I have) for years – and keep learning. Usage is about word choice, spelling, punctuation (a big one!), and many other writing issues.

Back to the man who railed against ending a sentence with a preposition. Why am I so sure he was wrong? Two reasons.

Reason #1: Fowler’s Modern English Usage – the most respected resource for English grammar and usage – says it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition – and it includes examples from many famous writers.

(Please bear with me for a moment while I complain about students of English who go to Quora or a similar website to ask someone’s opinion about a rule. For heaven’s sake: when you’re looking for answers, go to a respected reference book, or call the library, or visit a reputable website. Don’t ask for someone’s opinion!)

Reason #2: English is created by the people who use it, and we all end sentences with prepositions. “What did I just step on?” “I can’t believe what I’ve gotten myself into.” “My daughter loves to be read to.” I’ll be there at eight to pick you up.” “Let me explain what this button is for.” “I’ll see if he’s in.” “Where are you from?” “Why don’t you just call him up?” “We’ll go out to lunch when the meeting is over.” “I need to look that up.”

What about the claim that bad grammar leads to bad thinking? I’m sure there are a few instances where that’s true. But I’ve known many smart, knowledgeable people who make true grammar mistakes: “He don’t.” “Between you and I.”

One of my favorite hockey commentators is a big “he don’t” offender. And I used to have a brilliant ballroom instructor who often said “I have went.” Those mistakes didn’t affect their thinking and knowledge. Here’s one more example: Shakespeare used “between you and I” in one of his plays.

Back to prepositions. Here in the Deep South, where I’ve lived for many years, many people say “I don’t know where it’s at.” It’s a poor usage habit they have to break if they’re going to climb the career ladder. But the problem isn’t the preposition at the end. The real problem is that “where it’s at” is a regionalism that professionals avoid using. I can give you a perfectly acceptable sentence with similar grammar: “I don’t know which box it’s in.”

(I’m not putting down Southerners, by the way. Because I grew up on Long Island, I’ve had to work hard on remembering to use r’s when I’m talking. Every region has issues!)

So – if bad grammar doesn’t lead to bad thinking – why do schools and colleges (and business and government leaders) keep emphasizing writing skills? Here’s the answer: weak writing leads to weak thinking. And – trust me – grammar study will not make you a powerful writer. You’ll become skilled with verbs, pronouns, and modifiers – but that’s not the same as learning to write strong sentences and paragraphs.

More about this in a future post. (Hint: if you’re trying to write strong sentences, the word and can be a problem!)

a map of Long Island, New Yori

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