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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

August 19, 2014 at 5:00 AM

It’s OK to boldly split infinitives, says Harvard psychologist

English teachers take notice.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says in a recent article in The Guardian that it’s important to distinguish between legitimate grammar rules that “lubricate comprehension” and musty admonitions based on pet peeves, crackpot theories and superstitions that “impede clear and graceful prose.”

Some of the latter include:

Ending sentences with prepositions

The prohibition against clause-final prepositions is considered a superstition even by the language mavens, and it persists only among know-it-alls who have never opened a dictionary or style manual to check.

Splitting infinitives (inserting an adverb between “to” and the verb, as in the opening lines of Star Trek, “to boldly go”)

There is not the slightest reason to interdict an adverb from the position before the main verb, and great writers in English have placed it there for centuries. Indeed, the spot in front of the main verb is often the most natural resting place for an adverb, and sometimes it is the only resting place.

And starting sentences with conjunctions

Many children are taught that it is ungrammatical to begin a sentence with a conjunction. That’s because teachers need a simple way to teach them how to break sentences, so they tell them that sentences beginning with “and” and other conjunctions are ungrammatical. Whatever the pedagogical merits may be of feeding children misinformation, it is inappropriate for adults. There is nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with a conjunction.

Pinker, who has written several bestselling books about language and cognition, has a new book out next month called The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

Tell us in the comments: Do you think teachers should let go of certain grammar rules? What is the most fussy or outdated mandate still being taught in schools today?

Comments | More in News | Topics: Grammar, Psychology

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