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The word

Overruled

What language experts don't care about

By Erin McKean
February 21, 2010

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If you care about how to use language - and if you’re reading this column, it’s a safe bet that you do - then you care about language rules. There are basic rules that everyone agrees with - for example, that the word moon has exactly two o’s, no more and no less - and then there are slightly more arcane rules (such as when to use “such as” and when to use “like”) that are subtle signals to other literate people that you, too, know your way around what’s “right.”

But the deeper you go, the more you come to understand that language rules - well, they aren’t exactly the rules of physics. At best, they’re guidelines, and at worst, they’re superstitions, like not walking under a ladder or putting a hat on the bed.

This poses a problem for language mavens. On the one hand, anyone who makes a professional study of the English language understands that quite a few of these rules are bunk, cruft, leftover prejudices from other ages.

But on the other hand, nobody likes to be thought wrong. So for language experts, this results in a bit of triage: You choose a few rules to follow to signal your up-to-date membership in the Thoughtful Language Maven Club. And you leave some others, less well-known, by the wayside.

I know which rules I ignore, but I wondered if there was a language-maven consensus. So I asked a few language experts for the rules they’ve decided to pass on. It may come as a surprise to many, but there are some well-known “rules” that are almost universally discarded now: Never end a sentence with a preposition. Never start a sentence with a conjunction. Never split an infinitive. Never use the passive voice. As Nicole Stockdale, assistant editorial page editor at The Dallas Morning News, put it: “Good riddance to these well-intentioned rules from poorly informed schoolmarms.”

Neal Whitman, a linguist who writes about language and usage issues at his blog, Literal-Minded, thinks the rule about not using “people” as the (irregular) plural of “person” except with big, round numbers is a safe one to ignore. (Theoretically, you’re supposed to say “300 people in the courtroom,” but “12 persons on the jury.”) “Even with my longstanding interest in language and grammar, I never heard about that one until a few years ago,” he said.

Mark Allen (a noted copy editor who tweets as @EditorMark on Twitter) says he’ll “grudgingly” clean up something that fussy readers might construe as incorrect, but says he’s been known to use “due to” where sticklers would insist on “because of.”

Wendalyn Nichols, the editor of Copyediting Newsletter and an editor of ELT dictionaries for Cambridge University Press, has decided to keep following one semi-obscure rule (which she calls “the copy editor’s secret handshake”): the difference between “compare to” and “compare with.” “The former is likening and the latter is contrasting,” Nichols explains, “but precious few people observe that distinction these days. Even I have to quote ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ to myself to remember the difference, and I’m supposed to be the expert.”

In your own usage, how should you decide whether it’s a rule you should follow? Well, if you do what’s supposed to be right, and it sounds wrong or just hopelessly stilted, that’s one indication that you may be following the letter of the law but ignoring the spirit of the language. (As the old joke goes, that is something up with which we should not put.)

Another rule of thumb is whether or not you can even remember the rule once you’ve encountered it. As Nichols puts it, “Experts delight in ‘getting it right,’ but when experts themselves have to look up a rule all the time, it means the distinction is probably not worth preserving.”

The last trick is to try out both versions on a person whose language you admire - not necessarily a maven, but someone you find easy to understand. “Hey, which sounds better: ‘leave me alone,’ or ‘let me alone’?” (Bet you didn’t know that some people feel that “leave me alone” should always mean “go away and leave me by myself” and “let me alone” means “stop bugging me” - and now that you do, will you really care?)

Which rules do I ignore? I let more slide than most grammar mavens do - as a lexicographer, I concentrate on taking care of the words, and let the syntax take care of itself. I like funny language rules that verge on etiquette (such as the rule that one gives “congratulations” to the groom but “best wishes” to the bride), but I pay scant attention to etymologically-motivated rules, such as the one that insists that “decimate” be limited to disasters that strike down one in ten.

Since I ignore quite a few rules, I have come up with a default response to the inevitable “you should know better” e-mails. “Great catch!” it begins - because that sounds so much nicer than “Yep, I know.”

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com. For past columns, go to www.boston.com/ideas.