English usage and writing myths

There are several myths about English grammar and typography that are widely held but have little or no validity. A few are discussed here.

Myth: You cannot start a sentence with the words and or but.

According to the authoritative New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (third edition) by R.W. Burchfield there is a widely held belief that sentences cannot commence with the word ‘And’. The Oxford English Dictionary gives examples going back hundreds of years of ‘And’ commencing sentences, and the plays of Shakespeare are full of them.

Similarly, there is a widespread belief, without foundation, that the word ‘But’ should not commence a sentence. Burchfield again dispels this myth and states that although ‘but’ often appears after a semicolon it can legitimately be used at the beginning of the following sentence. However, its use should be limited to avoid ‘contextual dislocation’ unless it is being deliberately used for that purpose.

Myth: You must not split an infinitive.

This is another old chestnut. The most famous split infinitive is from the 1960s TV series Star Trek that used in its opening ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’. Grammar pedants might argue that it should be reworded ‘To go boldly where no man has gone before’, but that would certainly diminish its dramatic effect. Burchfield recommends ‘Avoid splitting infinitives whenever possible, but do not suffer undue remorse if a split infinitive is unavoidable for the natural and unambiguous completion of a sentence already begun’ (p. 738).

Myth: You cannot end a sentence with a preposition.

Prepositions are words such as at, between, by, for, from, in, on, up, with. It is often unavoidable to have a preposition at the end of a sentence without major and often clumsy rewording. Try rewriting these without them sounding awkward:

  • What did you do that for? (For what did you do that?)
  • It is not an offer to be sneezed at. (It is not an offer at which to be sneezed!)

Winston Churchill famously said in mockery of this myth: ‘This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.’

Myth: You have to use a double word space between sentences.

This is a typographic convention from the days of the typewriter that has unfortunately sometimes been carried over to the age of digital media. I still see this practice in some proofreading that I handle. Most publishing style guides (e.g. Chicago Manual of Style and The Oxford Guide to Style) recommend single letter spacing between sentences and if you look in modern books, journals, and magazines this is the style that you will see.

Myth: You must indent every paragraph.

This is not the case as the custom is for the first paragraph after a heading is full out or flush left. Also in some publications all paragraphs are set full out with a line or half-line space between paragraphs, which gives a less dense appearance to the text. This style is often recommended for reports.