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Common English usage misconceptions

This list comprises widespread modern beliefs about English language usage that are documented by a reliable source to be myths or misconceptions.

With no authoritative language academy, guidance on English language usage can come from many sources. This can create problems, as described by Reginald Close:

Teachers and textbook writers often invent rules which their students and readers repeat and perpetuate. These rules are usually statements about English usage which the authors imagine to be, as a rule, true. But statements of this kind are extremely difficult to formulate both simply and accurately. They are rarely altogether true; often only partially true; sometimes contradicted by usage itself. Sometimes the contrary to them is also true.

Perceived usage and grammar violations elicit visceral reactions in many people. For example, respondents to a 1986 BBC poll were asked to submit "the three points of grammatical usage they most disliked". Participants stated that their noted points " 'made their blood boil', 'gave a pain to their ear', 'made them shudder', and 'appalled' them". But not all commonly held usage violations are errors; many are only perceived as such.

Though there are a variety of reasons misconceptions about correct language usage can arise, there are a few especially common ones with English. Perhaps the most significant source of these misconceptions has to do with the pseudo-scholarship of the early modern period. During the late Renaissance and early modern periods the vernacular languages of Western Europe gradually replaced Latin as a literary language in many contexts. As part of this process scholars in Europe borrowed a great deal of Latin vocabulary into their languages. England's history was even more complex in that, because of the Norman conquest, English borrowed heavily from both Norman French and Latin. The tendency among language scholars in England was to use Latin and French concepts of grammar and language as the basis for defining and prescribing English. Because French had for so long been seen as the language of the nobility, there was a tendency to see cases where English-language usage differed from French (and/or Latin) as ignorance on the part of English speakers. For example, in Germanic languages like English many words that can be used as prepositions (e.g. "Are you going with me?") can also be used as special verb modifiers (e.g. "Whom are you going with?"). French (like Latin, for the most part) does not have these particle words, so using a preposition in any context except as a preposition was seen as wrong (e.g., ending a sentence with one). Similarly, because in French and Latin infinitives are a single word (as opposed to two in English), placing an adverb in the middle of an infinitive was seen as incorrect.

a.^ For example, among the top ten usage "errors" submitted to the BBC was the supposed prohibition against using double negatives.
b.^ The Churchill Centre describes a similar version as "An invented phrase put in Churchill's mouth".
c.^ Chicago elaborates by noting Charles Allen Lloyd’s observations on this phenomenon: "Next to the groundless notion that it is incorrect to end an English sentence with a preposition, perhaps the most wide-spread of the many false beliefs about the use of our language is the equally groundless notion that it is incorrect to begin one with "but" or "and." As in the case of the superstition about the prepositional ending, no textbook supports it, but apparently about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it. One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves."
d.^ These authors are quick to point out, however, that the passive voice is not necessarily better—it's simply a myth that the passive voice is wrong. For example, Brians states that, "it's true that you can make your prose more lively and readable by using the active voice much more often," and Fogarty points out that "passive sentences aren't incorrect; it’s just that they often aren't the best way to phrase your thoughts".
e.^ Or any other arbitrary number.
  • Bauer, Laurie; Trudgill, Peter, eds. (1998). Language Myths. London: Penguin Books. ISBN . 
  • Bratcher, Dennis (3 December 2007). "The Origin of "Xmas"". CRI / Voice, Institute. 
  • Brians, Paul (2009). Common Errors in English Usage (2nd ed.). Wilsonville: William, James & Company. 
  • Burchfield, R. W., ed. (1996). Fowler's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN . 
  • Butterfield, Jeremy (2008). Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN . 
  • Close, R.A. (1964). The New English Grammar: Lessons in English as a Foreign Language. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 
  • Cutts, Martin (2009). Oxford Guide to Plain English (Third ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN . 
  • Bringhurst, Robert (2005). The Elements of Typographic Style. Vancouver: Hartley and Marks. ISBN . 
  • The Churchill Centre and Museum at the Churchill War Rooms, London. "Famous Quotations and Stories". 
  • Felici, James (24 August 2009). "To Double-Space or Not to Double-Space". and CreativePro.com31 March 2010. 
  • Fogarty, Mignon (2008). Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. New York: Holt Paperbacks. ISBN . 
  • Fogarty, Mignon (22 July 2010). "Active Voice Versus Passive Voice". Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. 
  • Fogarty, Mignon (4 March 2010). "Top Ten Grammar Myths". Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. 
  • Fogarty, Mignon (2011). Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students. New York: Henry Holt & Company. pp. 45–46. ISBN . 
  • Garner, Bryan A. (2003). Garner's Modern American Usage. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN . 
  • Howard, Phillip (1984). The State of the Language: English Observed. London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN . 
  • Jury, David (2004). About Face: Reviving the Rules of Typography. Switzerland: Rotovision SA. ISBN . 
  • Lloyd, Charles Allen (1938). We Who Speak English: and Our Ignorance of Our Mother Tongue. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. 
  • Merriam-Webster (2011). "Irregardless". Merriam-Webster. 
  • Merriam-Webster (1995). Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam-Webster. 
  • Nordquist, Richard (2011). "Top Five Phony Rules of Writing". New York Times Company. 
  • O'Conner, Patricia T.; Kellerman, Stewart (2009). Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. New York: Random House. ISBN . 
  • O'Conner, Patricia T. (2009). Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English (Third ed.). New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN . 
  • Pullum, Geoffrey K. (17 April 2009). "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice". The Chronicle Review. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 
  • Spencer, David (24 May 2011). "The Curious Misconception Surrounding Sentence Spacing". Type Desk. Matador. 
  • Strizver, Ilene (2010). Type Rules!: The Designer's Guide to Professional Typography (3rd ed.). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN . 
  • University of Chicago Press (2010). The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. ISBN . 
  • University of Chicago Writing Program. "Grammar Resources". University of Chicago Writing Program. University of Chicago. 
  • Walsh, Bill (2004). The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English. New York: McGraw Hill. ISBN . 
  • The Writing Center. "Paragraph Development". University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 


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