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When That Grammar You (Think You) Learned May Be Hurting Your Writing: 3 Fake Rules of Grammar

Ellen Jovin, author of Rebel With a Clause, shares three fake rules of grammar and how what you think you learned in English class may actually be hurting your writing.

Faithful adherence to grammar rules that are not actually rules has sucked the life out of many excellent sentences. Adults are often hobbled by outdated or just plain wrong notions of correct grammar they feel they must adhere to—for example, the idea that it is ungrammatical to end with a preposition, as I did right before my em dash in this sentence. 

I love grammar, but if you feel you are tying spectacular sentences into knots because of faded grammar memories, it’s worth revisiting the concepts constraining your creativity.

3 Fake Grammar Rules for Writers

Fake Rule #1. Don’t use “whose” to refer to things.

I don’t normally use who for anything but people and cute pets:

Mitsy, who preferred solitude to affection, would purr only if I fed her while petting her.

Some people believe that “whose” is also only for human or humanlike cases, and that’s simply not true. English has no comparable possessive just for objects: “whose” is all we’ve got. Here’s a wonderful example from Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man: “Sometimes it appeared as though they played some vast and complicated game with me and the rest of the school folk, a game whose goal was laughter and whose rules and subtleties I could never grasp.”

On the very first page of E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End, we have this: “Then she walked off the lawn to the meadow, whose corner to the right I can just see.”

Of her young protagonist in The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote, “She found herself in one long gallery whose walls were covered with these portraits.”

Are you preparing to dismiss these examples as old-fashioned? Hold your grammar horses! This is so very common for excellent writers that it took me only seconds to locate three recent examples in The New Yorker of “whose” used to refer to exactly the same nouns as above: “game,” “meadow,” and “gallery.”

What are the odds?

Excellent, it turns out, when we are talking about something that is a natural and ubiquitous feature of the English language. How can one object to something that excellent writers have done for ages? If the usage of our best writers is objectionable to us, then whom are we following as our writing and grammar guides?

Often not our best writers, it seems, since I keep seeing people replace sensible sentences like this one

You will receive a list of grammatical terms whose definitions you need to know for the final.

with awkward ones like this:

You will receive a list of grammatical terms the definitions of which you need to know for the final.

That is not making your writing better; it is making your writing cautious, stilted, and superstitious.

Check out Ellen Jovin's Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian:

Ellen Jovin

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Fake Rule #2. Don’t use “that” with people.

In A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, Daniel Defoe wrote that “the first person that died of the plague was on December 20, or thereabouts, 1664.” The “that” refers to the noun “person” just before it.

I know that’s old, so let’s swoosh forward in time 203 years to read, in The Great Gatsby, “Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

Still too old? Let’s time-travel again, this time to 2010, where we find Katy Perry singing about “The One That Got Away.” My point is, humans do this. A lot. Whether they think they do it or not, it is popping out of people’s mouths left and right, particularly when the person being referred to remains hazy and nonspecific.

For F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sentence from The Great Gatsby, which of these versions do you prefer?

  1. I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.
  2. I am one of the few honest people I have ever known.
  3. I am one of the few honest people who I have ever known.
  4. I am one of the few honest people whom I have ever known.

I could do either #1 or #2, but not #3 (because the structure calls for the object pronoun “whom” and I am a “whom” user) and also not #4 (because although technically correct, “whom” sounds ridiculous to me there). “That” is serviceable and simple. Let’s respect its quiet power.

Fake Rule #3. If you see two “that”s in a row, remove one.

Moby Dick, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Great Expectations, and oodles of other influential and widely read works all contain multiple examples of “that that.” I value word-cutting undertakings, but sometimes people go way overboard with their “that” excisions. “Conciseness!” they cry, as they hack another hardworking, unassuming four-letter word from the sentence it is helping hold up.

The word “that” serves multiple grammatical functions in English, and removing one can sometimes create a momentary misreading. Consider this sentence:

I can’t tell that that writer is terrified of public speaking.

If I remove one “that,” my sentence begins like this:

I can’t tell that writer…

What comes next? I can’t tell that writer a thing? I can’t tell that writer my darkest secrets? I can’t tell that writer my Social Security number? Keeping both “that”s in this sentence prevents brain blips.

It is very, very common to think we use language differently than we do. Because we are human beings and not computer databases, we can’t reliably store all our word encounters and experiences in our memories. It is important to remain open to the influences of beautiful literature you read throughout your life. Those grammar doors are meant to stay wide open, not locked shut with rusty deadbolts.

Please note that in the previous paragraph, I did two things people have reported to me over the years that I am definitely never supposed to do: I used “than” with a form of “different,” and I began a sentence with “because.”

Is this life on the grammar edge? Not at all. It’s just about the facts—about language as it is actually used, not as we imagine it. Beautiful literary writing is varied and creative, and it is there that I try to learn about the aesthetic potential of English—the breathtaking possibilities of grammar rather than the limitations people often imagine are imposed by it.

People may think, Oh, what’s the cost of following a few questionable rules in order to be safe? Well, there is always a cost when we reject the evidence of our senses in favor of superstition. Sophisticated grammar is about expanding your understanding of language, not stapling yourself to outdated rules that you may or may not be remembering correctly from Ms. Fitzgibbon’s seventh-grade English class.

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