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Gary B. Larson


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Garbl's Myths and Superstitions of Writing

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For decades and even centuries, respected authorities on writing, reading, editing, grammar and word usage have disputed the following 11 myths and superstitions of writing. Unfortunately, they continue to be taught and followed in education, business, law, and government, on the Internet, and in conversations between parents and children.

Superstitions: "unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma."--H.W. Fowler, 1926

Myth: Never split an infinitive.

"There is no point in rearranging a sentence just to avoid splitting an infinitive unless it is an awkward one" -- Porter G. Perrin, 1965.

Acceptable usage: He wanted to really impress his boss.

Other references: Lounsbury, 1908; Fowler, 1926; Leonard, 1932; Curme, 1947; Evans & Evans, 1957; Lewis, 1961; Bernstein, 1965; Follett, 1966; Skillin, 1974; Gowers, 1988; Johnson, 1991; Stott, 1991; Lauchman, 1993; American Heritage, 1996; O'Connor, 1996; Lederer & Dowis, 1999; Sabin, 1999; Lovinger, 2000; Strunk & White, 2000; Trimble, 2000; Wallraff, 2000; Walsh, 2000; Associated Press, 2002; Bryson, 2002; Merriam-Webster, 2002; Chicago, 2003; Garner, 2003; Williams, 2003 | Garbl

Myth: Never begin a sentence with But or And.

"One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves." -- Charles Allen Lloyd, 1938

Acceptable usage: But don't overdo starting sentences with conjunctions. They'll lose their punch.

Other references on and: Lowth, 1782; Bryant, 1947; Fowler & Gowers, 1965; Follett, 1966; Amis, 1977; Copperud, 1980; Morris & Morris, 1985; Gowers, 1988; Johnson, 1991; Stott, 1991; Burchfield, 1992; American Heritage, 1996; O'Connor, 1996; Lederer & Dowis, 1999; Sabin, 1999; Lovinger, 2000; Wallraff, 2000; Walsh, 2000; Bryson, 2002; Merriam-Webster, 2002; Chicago, 2003; Garner, 2003; Williams, 2003 | Garbl

Other references on but: Baker, 1962; Pence & Emery, 1963; Payne, 1965; Follett, 1966; Amis, 1977; Gowers, 1988; Johnson, 1991; Stott, 1991; American Heritage, 1996; O'Connor, 1996; Lederer & Dowis, 1999; Sabin, 1999; Trimble, 2000; Wallraff, 2000; Walsh, 2000; Merriam-Webster, 2002; Chicago, 2003; Garner, 2003; Williams, 2003 | Garbl

Myth: Never end a sentence with a preposition.

"In English prepositions have been used as terminal words in a sentence since the days of Chaucer, and in that position they are completely idiomatic." -- Theodore M. Bernstein, 1971

Other references: Lowth, 1782; Bryant, 1947; Evans & Evans, 1957; Fowler & Gowers, 1965; Skillin, 1974; Gowers, 1988; Stott, 1991; American Heritage, 1996; O'Connor, 1996; Lederer & Dowis, 1999; Sabin, 1999; Lovinger, 2000; Trimble, 2000; Wallraff, 2000; Woods, 2001; Bryson, 2002; Merriam-Webster, 2002; Chicago, 2003; Garner, 2003; Williams, 2003 | Garbl

Myth: Never use between with more than two objects.

"Between essentially does apply to only two, but sometimes the 'two' relationship is present when more than two elements are involved." -- Theodore M. Bernstein, 1977

Acceptable usage: Officials scheduled meetings between the community college and the Lake Washington, Bellevue and Issaquah school districts.

Other references: Lowth, 1782; Bryant, 1947; Fowler & Gowers, 1965; Skillin, 1974; Gowers, 1988; OED, 1989; Johnson, 1991; Lederer & Dowis, 1999; Sabin, 1999; Lovinger, 2000; Wallraff, 2000; Strunk & White, 2002; Walsh, 2000; Associated Press, 2002; Bryson, 2002; Merriam-Webster, 2002; Chicago, 2003; Garner, 2003 | Garbl

Myth: Never split a verb phrase.

"Because of their misconception as to what a split infinitive really is, some have reached the erroneous conclusion that an adverbial modifier must never be placed between parts of a compound verb phase" -- R.W. Pence & D.W. Emery, 1963

Other references: Lowth, 1782; Brown, 1852; Fowler, 1926; Baker, 1938; Partridge, 1942; Bernstein, 1965; Follett, 1966; Skillin, 1974; O'Connor, 1996; Sabin, 1999; Lovinger, 2000; Trimble, 2000; Walsh, 2000; Associated Press, 2002; Bryson, 2002; Chicago, 2003; Garner, 2003.

Myth: Never use contractions.

"Your style will obviously be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like 'I'll' and 'won't' when they fit comfortably into what you're writing." -- William Zinsser, 1985

Other references: Lowth, 1782; Bryant, 1947; Flesch, 1967; Ewing, 1974; Stott, 1991; O'Connor, 1996; Sabin, 1999; Trimble, 2000; Garner, 2003 | Garbl

Myth: Never use the first-person pronouns I and me.

[I]f you want to write like a professional just about the first thing you have to do is get used to the first person singular. ... Never mind the superstitious notion that it's immodest to do so. It just isn't so." -- Rudolf Flesch, 1958

Acceptable usage: The horse carried Debbie and me. Debbie and I rode the horse.

Other references: Lowth, 1782; Bryant, 1947; Stott, 1991; Lauchman, 1993; O'Connor, 1999; Trimble, 2000; Chicago, 2003; Garner, 2003 | Garbl

Myth: Never use since to mean because.

"There is a groundless notion current in both the lower schools and in the world of affairs that since has an exclusive reference to time and therefore cannot be used as a casual conjunction. ... No warrant exists for avoiding this usage, which goes back, beyond Chaucer, to Anglo-Saxon. ..." -- Wilson Follett, 1966

Other references: Copperud, 1980; O'Connor, 1996; Walsh, 2000; Chicago, 2003; Garner, 2003; Williams, 2003 | Garbl

Myth: Never begin a sentence with Because.

"So novel and absurd is this superstition that seemingly no authority on writing has countered it in print. It appears to result from concern about fragments." -- Bryan A. Garner, 2003

Other references: Lowth, 1782; Bryant, 1947; American Heritage, 1996; Merriam-Webster, 2002; Williams, 2003 | Garbl

Myth: Never write a paragraph containing only a single sentence.

"[T]o interpose a one-sentence paragraph at intervals -- at longish intervals -- is prudent." -- Eric Partridge, 1942

Other references: Hill, 1896; Lauchman, 1993; Lovinger, 2000; Trimble, 2000; Garner, 2003 | Garbl

Myth: Never refer to the reader as you.

"Keep a running conversation with your reader. Use the second-person pronoun whenever you can. Translate everything into you language." -- Rudolf Flesch, 1962

Other references: Olson, DeGeorge & Ray, 1985; Trimble, 2000; Garner, 2003 | Garbl

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References

Books by the many of the authors below are available at Garbl's Writing Bookshelf.

  • American Heritage, The, Book of English Usage, 1996
  • Amis, Kingsley, The King's English, 1997
  • Associated Press, The, Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, revised, 2002
  • Baker, Josephine Turck, Correct English: Complete Grammar and Drill Book, 1938
  • Baker, Sheridan, The Practical Stylist, 1962
  • Bernstein, Theodore M., Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer's Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage, 1971
  • Bernstein, Theodore M., Dos, Don'ts & Maybes of English Usage, 1977
  • Bernstein, Theodore M., The Careful Writer, 1965
  • Brown, Goold, The Institutes of English Grammar, revised edition, 1852
  • Bryant, Margaret M., College English, 1947
  • Bryson, Bill, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting It Right, 2002
  • Burchfield, R.W., Points of View, 1992
  • Chicago Press, University of, Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, 2003
  • Copperud, Roy H., American Usage and Style: The Consensus, 1980
  • Curme, George O., English Grammar, 1947
  • Evans, Bergen, & Cordelia Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, 1957
  • Ewing, David, Writing for Results in Business, Government, and the Professions, 1974
  • Flesch, Rudolf, A New Way to Better English, 1958
  • Flesch, Rudolf, How to Be Brief: An Index to Simple Writing, 1962
  • Follett, Wilson, Modern American Usage, 1966
  • Fowler, H.W., Dictionary of Modern English Usage,1926
  • Fowler, H.W., Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Ernest Gowers, editor, second edition, 1965
  • Garner, Bryan A., Garner's Modern American Usage, 2003
  • Gowers, Ernest, The Complete Plain Words, revised by Sidney Greenbaum & Janet Whitcut, 1988
  • Hill, Adams S., The Foundations of Rhetoric, 1896
  • Johnson, Edward D., The Handbook of Good English, 1991
  • Lauchman, Richard, Plain Style: Techniques for Simple, Concise, Emphatic Business Writing, 1993
  • Lederer, Richard, & Richard Dowis, Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged, 1999
  • Leonard, Sterling, Current English Usage, 1932
  • Lewis, Norman, Better English, 1961
  • Lloyd, Charles Allen, We Who Speak English, 1938.
  • Lounsbury, Thomas R., The Standard of Usage in English, 1908
  • Lovinger, Paul W., The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style, 2000
  • Lowth, Robert, A Short Introduction to English Grammar, revised edition, 1782
  • Merriam-Webster, Concise Dictionary of English Usage, 2002
  • Morris, William, & Mary Morris, Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, second edition, 1985
  • O'Connor, Patricia T., Woe Is I: The Grammarphobes Guide to Better English in Plain English, 1996
  • O'Connor, Patricia T., Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know about Writing, 1999
  • Olson, Gary A., James DeGeorge & Richard, Ray, Style and Readability in Business Writing, 1985
  • Oxford English Dictionary (OED), second edition, 1989
  • Partridge, Eric, Usage & Abusage, 1942
  • Payne, Lucile Vaughan, The Lively Art of Writing, 1965
  • Pence, R.W., & D.W. Emery, Grammar of Present-Day English, 1963
  • Perrin, Porter G., Writer's Guide and Index to English, fourth edition, 1965
  • Sabin, William, The Gregg Reference Manual, ninth edition, 2001
  • Skillin, Marjorie, Robert M. Gay, & others, Words Into Type, third edition, 1974
  • Stott, Bill, Write to the Point, 1991
  • Strunk, Jr., William, & E.B. White, The Elements of Style, fourth edition, 2000
  • Trimble, John R., Writing with Style, second edition, 2000
  • Wallraff, Barbara, Word Court, 2000
  • Walsh, Bill, Lapsing Into a Comma, 2000
  • Williams, Joseph M., Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, 2003
  • Woods, Geraldine, English Grammar for Dummies, 2001
  • Zinsser, William, On Writing Well, third edition, 1985

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Compiled by Gary B. Larson of Seattle, Washington, garbltoo@gmail.com.

Updated June 9, 2008.