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Grammar myths

Posted by Garry Collins, ETAQ Immediate Past President on 12 September 2017

An edited version of the letter below was published in The Australian of Thursday 24 August 2017. It was written in response to a letter which had taken one of the paper's journalists to task for splitting an infinitive. Underlined sections were deleted and bracketed ones inserted. The paper's heading was "Split on grammar".

Split infinitives and other grammatical nonsense

Steven Adams (Letters, 23/8) refers negatively to a split infinitive in the Inquirer article "Teaching the teachers" (22/8). While no doubt well-intentioned, his comment is inappropriate.

When descriptions of the grammar of English were first written, Latin had a privileged position in universities, the church and the law. Efforts were therefore made to apply the grammatical structures of Latin to English. Some worked OK, others not so much.

In Latin, as in many modern languages like French and German, the infinitive form of the verb is a single word so it cannot be "split". Often, to get the desired shade of meaning in English, an adverb needs to be deployed immediately before the main verb.

There are another two (other) of the so-called rules of traditional grammar which are also nonsense. These are the prohibitions against beginning sentences with conjunctions or ending them with prepositions.

The Inquirer piece did contain a grammatical error, or more generously a typo, but it did not relate to the use of the infinitive.

Garry Collins
Former president, Australian Association for the Teaching of English

Author: Garry Collins, ETAQ Immediate Past President
About: Garry Collins was ETAQ President from mid July 2005 to 15 March 2014. He taught English in state high schools for around 35 years and now tutors in English curriculum courses in the School of Education at the University of Queensland.
Tags: General news

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