‘The Guardian’ Opposes Zombie Rules

Most of what gets said about grammar in the British press is a ludicrous jumble of hoary myths and self-evident nonsense. (Take this “grammar test” in The Telegraph, for example: It is so downright silly that the paper’s own assistant comment editor and science writer, Tom Chivers, took the unusual step of critiquing it online in a Telegraph blog.) So—and I’m sorry if this sounds patronizing—I was genuinely surprised to see a newspaper article about grammar making 10 points about the syntax of contemporary Standard English that are broadly correct.

It is by David Marsh, the style editor of The Guardian, and his topic is zombie rules: supposed grammar rules that aren’t valid and probably never were but which shamble on as reanimated corpses, serving no purpose other than to frighten the living.

One of the saddest things about the sorry state of grammatical knowledge in the English-speaking world is that so many people are cowed by zombie rules. They worry that they don’t speak or write correctly, when in truth they mostly use their language perfectly well, and they are intimidated by what they imagine is a coherent and authoritative body of grammatical principles, when in truth a huge proportion of what is commonly believed about the grammar of English is bunk. Ancient bunk, hundreds of years out of date.

Marsh covers 10 bogus rules that should be jettisoned. His list is a bit diverse and miscellaneous, but let me summarize it briefly. I will paraphrase, using the terminology of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language rather than translating everything into the confused traditional terminology of yesteryear.

  1. Placing adjuncts between infinitival to and the verb (to really enjoy it) is fully grammatical.
  2. There’s nothing ungrammatical about stranded prepositions (something to look at), and there never was.
  3. It is far better to use the informal was for were in irrealis contexts (using phrases like if I was rich than to panic and incorrectly overuse the formal were (using ungrammatical sentences like *They asked me whether I were comfortable).
  4. Negative concord (the repetition of negation in I can’t get no dial tone) is a familiar feature of nonstandard English that all competent Standard English speakers should be able to understand; it’s not illogical or toxic, it’s just a grammatical feature that some languages have and others don’t. Most of the nonstandard dialects have retained it from Middle English; no need to have a cow about it.
  5. It is not true that the object of between has to denote a set of just two entities.
  6. Some English speakers now use of rather than with as the preposition that the adjective bored takes on its complement, and this small ongoing change doesn’t matter very much.
  7. Gerund-participial clauses often take accusative subjects (him doing that, not necessarily genitive (his doing that), and that’s OK; sometimes the genitive sounds pompous and awkward.
  8. Coordinators such as and can, and always could, begin sentences.
  9. None as subject can take plural agreement (as in None of these are mine).
  10. Try and relax is a long-standing, frequent, and respectable alternate for try to relax in informal Standard English; it’s not an error.

Marsh does make some mistakes. For example, he calls because a “conjunction,” and cites the Beatles’ line “Because the world is round it turns me on” as an example of a sentence-initial “conjunction.” The misclassification of because is virtually universal: All the traditional grammars and dictionaries call because a “subordinating conjunction,” as if it were comparable to a meaningless subordinator like that; the right analysis treats it as a preposition that can take a clause as complement. But Marsh is wrong independently of that: Nobody ever thought you couldn’t begin sentences with the traditional subordinating conjunctions, as opposed to the coordinating ones like and. Not even the most conservative authorities object to sentences like If the cap fits, wear it, or Although he’s cruel he’s fair, or That such things still happen is deplorable. (If I’m wrong, and anyone ever did object to such sentences, then the usage literature is even crazier than I thought it was.)

However, Marsh’s errors are minor ones made in passing, mostly attributable to traditional misanalyses. It’s true that his points 4 and 6 sit oddly in the list, because they actually touch on nonstandard features, where the other 8 are concerned with claims about Standard English. But he is broadly correct in the drift of his remarks on all 10 of the points he addresses. That is truly unusual, in this era when even well-educated people typically have no idea what’s true and what’s not about English sentence structure.

Return to Top