8 Things Your English Teacher Shouldn’t Have Told You
We implore you to forget these.
In this issue of Quibbles & Bits, we’re debunking some grammar and language myths you’ve likely been victimized by. These have been taught by generations of schoolteachers, reinforced by old-fashioned style books, and gleefully (but wrongly) championed in Twitter hypercorrections. We implore you to forget them.
1. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
This fallacy is hilarious. It sometimes forces people to tie their sentence into a knot of arrant pedantry to avoid ending it with a preposition (such as “as,” “at,” “by,” “for,” “from,” and “of”). There’s a funny bit on The Last Man on Earth about this. (“What do you need that gun out for?" "Don't you mean 'Out for what do you need that gun’?”) You could always take the Southern Gal route and see how far that gets you. The argument is that a preposition makes for a weak conclusion. Almost any sentence that ends with a preposition can easily be rewritten to a punchier alternative, but neglecting this "rule" is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not something we’d steer you away from. You and this "rule" should break up.
2. Never start a sentence with a conjunction.
Here is the above myth's cousin: You’ve been told to avoid starting a sentence with a conjunction (like “for,” “and,” “nor,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” and “so”) because these are parts of speech that fit between other phrases and fasten them together; they’re connectors that belong in the middle of a sentence, not at the beginning of one. But we say, why not! So what if you start your sentence with a conjunction! Because this gets to the point, you should do the damn thing! And throw caution to the wind!
3. Never use “they” when referring to a singular person.
This is an argument we will seemingly be having until the end times with people who sound like this. The singular “they” is a core part of our style guide: It’s gender-neutral and nondiscriminating, and it’s much simpler than writing “he or she” constantly, which is exclusionary and outdated. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the singular “they” back to 1375. Merriam-Webster added it as a singular pronoun in September 2019 and made it its word of the year. If it’s good enough for William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and Jane Austen, it’s good enough for us. Gender is a social construct! Grammar doubly so! You’re in the clear.
4. A run-on sentence is any super-long sentence.
A run-on sentence is one where clauses are joined without the proper punctuation or conjunctions. A common example of this is the comma splice, you know, a comma splice is when two independent clauses are joined by a comma with no coordinating conjunction (this sentence has a comma splice). Some people might take a look at a long sentence that just simply seems like it could’ve been written more concisely, and they’ll criticize such a sentence for its wordiness by labeling it a “run-on,” but that would be technically incorrect. While they may be right to suggest an edit for readability, if the sentence’s clauses are appropriately connected, it’s not a run-on.
5. Never say you “could care less.”
If you’re signed up for this newsletter, you’ve probably corrected this one — or held yourself back from doing so. The phrase “couldn’t care less,” meaning you simply do not give a damn, has long been misstated as “could care less.” However, since the so-called mistake began at least 50 years ago, we’ve reached a point where both phrases are included in Merriam-Webster and share a definition. I mean, we all know what someone means when they say they “could care less.”
6. Never split an infinitive.
This bogus “rule” against letting an adverb sit comfortably between “to” and a verb originated in the Victorian era, ostensibly by a villainous sentence-torturer. For instance: I swore an oath to carefully copyedit every sentence of this newsletter. I’m not sure I would trust someone who pledged “to copyedit carefully.” Sure, you could recast — I swore an oath to copyedit every sentence of this newsletter carefully — but you’d sacrifice the emphasis. The most famous example, of course, comes from Star Trek’s mission statement: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” Take heed and boldly split your infinitives!
7. Don't use "literally" when you mean "figuratively."
This is literally the silliest proscription, but people are so incensed by Merriam-Webster’s seemingly contradictory second definition (“in effect: VIRTUALLY — used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible”) that the dictionary felt compelled to offer a lengthy (and salty!) defense. Would you really call an ambulance if I said this debate literally makes my head explode? (Please don’t — it’s a metaphor. Literally!)
8. If you think you might vomit, you feel “nauseated” — not “nauseous.”
What kind of person would “correct” a green-hued human who says they feel “nauseous”? A former colleague of mine, that’s who, and I felt sick about it for years. 🤢 “Nauseous,” my coworker insisted, meant I was causing nausea (i.e., what language tyrants like him do), while “nauseated” referred to feeling pukey myself. (I’m sorry to say that I did not throw up on his shoes.) It’s time to accept, as dictionaries do, that the English language no longer draws a distinction between the two words. In fact, “feel nauseous” has become the predominant term — by a huge margin. If this shift makes you queasy, there’s an easy cure: Say you feel nauseated! Just don’t tell someone they’re wrong for using the other term — or they might throw up on your shoes.
SUPER-SERIOUS DISCLAIMER: The following was written by copy chief Drusilla Moorhouse and does not reflect the views of her colleagues on the BuzzFeed News copy desk.
Finally: Why do people care so much about the Oxford comma?
Crack all the jokes you want about your parents, Mother Teresa and the pope, but be honest: How often is the context so ambiguous that a series simply must have a comma before the final “and”?
If your argument is based on aesthetics — that the serial comma has a certain elegance (panache, even!) — then by all means, take your comma (and your curly quotes, too, as a treat). But to insist this punctuation is necessary for readability is pure intransigence.
Don’t worry: I’m not on a mission to change BuzzFeed’s style and follow AP. But if you want to pry the Oxford comma out of my hands, you don’t need to wait until they’re cold and dead.
FYI BuzzFeed News is hiring a full-time copy editor! If you have:
- 3+ years’ postgrad experience as a copy editor for a digital media publisher
- A love for pop culture, news, and the evolution of language
- ~feelings~ about that last comma ↑
Please apply here!
What's New in the BuzzFeed Style Guide
In addition to new sections on Drug Use and Addiction and Homelessness, we’ve also updated the Coronavirus Pandemic section. Here are some entries we’ve added since our last newsletter:
microinfluencer (not micro-influencer)
nanoinfluencer (not nano-influencer)
Ages: Use older adults or older person/people rather than senior citizens, seniors, or elderly. Do not use the elderly to refer to a group, as the term is vague and can be dehumanizing. Include age specifics when possible (e.g., “people 65 and older qualify”).
double-masking (all forms)
savage: Avoid this racial slur, even in casual contexts that aren't referring to people (e.g., do not use "savage burn" or "these memes are savage").
well-known vs. well known: Per AP: Hyphenate well- combinations before a noun, but not after: a well-known judge, but the judge is well known.
4 Things We’ve Been Reading
The New York Times: The Words That Are In and Out With the Biden Administration
BuzzFeed News: What It’s Like Being Called Rona in the Time of “The Rona”
The New York Times: Tone Is Hard to Grasp Online. Can Tone Indicators Help?
And finally, a tweet: