In honor of National Writing Day, here’s a quiz to challenge you – along with some thoughts about the rules that govern correct English. Warning: You may encounter some surprises as you read on!
How much do you know about English grammar? Try this little test. Are these statements always true?
1. “Everybody” is a singular pronoun.
2. Use “who” for people, “that” for things.
3. Double negatives (“don’t have none”) are wrong because two negatives make a positive.
4. “One” is singular, and “five” is plural.
5. It’s wrong to use “good” to modify a verb.
6. Good writers don’t start sentences with “but.”
All the statements are false. Surprised? Let’s take a look.
1. Of course “everybody” is usually singular. But take a look at these two sentences:
Everybody finished early. How did they answer all those questions so quickly?
No one would replace “they” in the second sentence with “he or she.”
The “everybody…he or she” rule goes back to 1795, when a self-proclaimed grammarian named Lindley Murray invented it for a book that went on to become a bestseller.
Before Murray wrote his book (and, some say, messed up a perfectly workable grammatical structure), “they” was a free-floating pronoun that could be either singular or plural. (English, remember, has lost the useful gender-free singular pronouns that many other languages still have.)
“He” became “he or she” in the twentieth century to make English more inclusive. Feminists everywhere (I’m one!) heartily approve that change…but it added a clumsy, unnatural construction to many sentences. Some language experts are encouraging writers to go back to the original “everybody…they” construction that everyone used before Murray came along.
2. Yes, “that” should be reserved for things. For example, The nurse that took care of my sister should be changed to “who took care of my sister.”
But like many grammar rules, this one doesn’t work every time. Take a look at this sentence:
He’s the only man that I know of who has visited all 50 states.
3. The “two negatives make a positive” argument against double negatives seems to make sense – until you realize that many other languages (Spanish is one) routinely use double negatives, even in formal writing. And if you study Old English, you’ll discover that our language used to have double negatives too.
Why are double negatives ok in Spanish and in Old English, but not in modern English? The answer is that educated people don’t use them. That simple principle is the basis for every rule.
4. Of course “one” is singular and “five” is plural – most of the time. But what about this sentence?
Five dollars is too much to pay for a gallon of gas.
“Five dollars” is a unit, not five separate things, as in this sentence:
Five stores are closing because business has been so slow.
5. Yes, verbs require adverbs (well, -ly words), and nouns require adjectives (good). But not always. Forms of the verb to be and its cousins, the copulative verbs (seem, look, sound, smell, taste, feel) also use adjectives.
Consider feel, which has two meanings. It can be an action (as when you feel for a light switch in a darkened room). But it can also be a form of is (I feel good about my chances for the job).
Note these examples:
The soup smells good.
Your idea sounds good to me.
That color looks good on you.
6. The “you can’t start a sentence with but” rule does not exist and never has. It doesn’t appear in any grammar books – in fact the grammar books themselves feature sentences that start with but. (Did you notice that three sentences in this article start with but?)
Great writers, both old and new, routinely start sentences with but. Check the King James Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, today’s newspaper…any professional writing you have handy. Look at The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Turn the pages of Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves. You’ll have a hard time finding an author who doesn’t start sentences with but (I haven’t found any yet).
Bottom line: Don’t try to force a sentence to fit into a logical system. Read, read, read. Figure out what good writers do, and use them as models. You’ll soon be on your way to expertise.