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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 held to be correct by sources that are just as reliable.[a]
With no authoritative language academy, English is not a prescriptive language. Therefore, 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.
Misconception: A sentence must not end in a preposition. Mignon Fogarty ("Grammar Girl") says, "nearly all grammarians agree that it's fine to end sentences with prepositions, at least in some cases." Fowler's Modern English Usage says that "One of the most persistent myths about prepositions in English is that they properly belong before the word or words they govern and should not be placed at the end of a clause or sentence." Preposition stranding was in use long before any English speakers considered it to be incorrect. This idea probably began in the 17th century, owing to an essay by the poet John Dryden, and it is still taught in schools today. But, "every major grammarian for more than a century has tried to debunk" this idea; "it's perfectly natural to put a preposition at the end of a sentence, and it has been since Anglo-Saxon times." "Great literature from Chaucer to Milton to Shakespeare to the King James version of the Bible was full of so called terminal prepositions." Winston Churchill is said to have written, "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put,"[b] illustrating the awkwardness that could result from a rule prohibiting sentence-ending prepositions.
Misconception: Infinitives must not be split. "There is no such rule" against splitting an infinitive, according to The Oxford Guide to Plain English, and it's "never been wrong to 'split' an infinitive". In some cases it might be preferable to split an infinitive. But, Phillip Howard states that this is "another great Shibboleth of English syntax", and the "grammatical 'rule' that most people retain from their schooldays is the one about not splitting infinitives". According to the University of Chicago Writing Program, "Professional linguists have been snickering at it for decades, yet children are still taught this false 'rule.' "
In his grammar book A Plea for the Queen's English (1864), Henry Alford claimed that "to" was part of the infinitive and that the parts were inseparable. This was in line with a movement by grammarians in the 19th century to transfer Latin rules to the English language (in Latin, infinitives are unsplittable words, e.g., "amare, cantare, audire").
Misconception: The words "and" and "but" must not begin a sentence. Those who impose this rule for themselves are following a modern English "rule" that was not used historically. Jeremy Butterfield described this perceived prohibition as one of "the folk commandments of English usage". The Chicago Manual of Style says,
There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as 'and', 'but', or 'so'. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.[c]
Regarding the word "and", Fowler's Modern English Usage states, "There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards." Garner's Modern American Usage adds, "It is rank superstition that this coordinating conjuction cannot properly begin a sentence." The word "but" suffers from similar misconceptions. Garner tells us that, "It is a gross canard that beginning a sentence with but is stylistically slipshod. In fact, doing so is highly desirable in any number of contexts, as many stylebooks have said (many correctly pointing out that but is more effective than however at the beginning of a sentence)". Fowler's echoes this sentiment, saying "The widespread public belief that But should not be used at the beginning of a sentence seems to be unshakeable. Yet it has no foundation."
Misconception: The passive voice is incorrect. An English myth is that the passive voice is always incorrect and some "writing tutors" believe that the passive voice is to be avoided in all cases. However, "There are legitimate uses for the passive voice," says Paul Brians. Mignon Fogarty also points out that "passive sentences aren't incorrect", and "If you don't know who is responsible for an action, passive voice can be the best choice."[d] When the active and passive voices can both be used without much awkwardness, there are differing opinions about which one should be preferred. Bryan A. Garner adds a twist to the misconception about passive voice with the statement, "Many writers talk about passive voice without knowing exactly what it is. In fact, many think that any BE-VERB signals passive voice."
Misconception: Using double negatives is always bad English. This is included by Patricia O'Conner in a list of "bogus or worn out rules". She advises readers to avoid certain uses (such as "I didn't do nothing") but not to completely remove the double negative from our English toolboxes when constructing prose. Acceptable examples given are "It's not inconceivable. She's not unappealing." Whether or not the double negative is being used as a positive constitutes a major difference between the acceptable and unacceptable examples. Many prescriptive English speakers consider this the defining criterion for whether a double negative is acceptable. However, it was only in 1762 that this trend of making English agree with formal logic was introduced so some linguists still advise against using double negatives altogether. Paul Brians, who affirms that "It is not true, as some assert, that double negatives are always wrong," provides the following as a humorous example:
One of the funniest uses of the literary double negative is Douglas Adams' description of a machine dispensing "a substance almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea."
Misconception: Two spaces must follow each sentence. Placing two word spaces between sentences is a typewriter convention that has carried over into the age of digital media. Most style guides recommend only a single space between sentences. Professionally published books, magazines, and newspapers also use a single space between sentences, but even this is widely overlooked.
Misconception: Every paragraph must be indented. Professionally printed material does not always have an indented first paragraph. Robert Bringhurst states that we should "Set opening paragraphs flush left" and explains as follows: "The function of a paragraph is to mark a pause, setting the paragraph apart from what precedes it. If a paragraph is preceded by a title or subhead, the indent is superfluous and can therefore be omitted."
Misconception: Paragraphs must comprise at least three sentences.[e] This is an English myth. Richard Nordquist states that "no rule exists regarding the number of sentences that make up a paragraph," noting that professional writers use "paragraphs as short as a single word". According to the Oxford Guide to Plain English,
If you can say what you want to say in a single sentence that lacks a direct connection with any other sentence, just stop there and go on to a new paragraph. There's no rule against it. A paragraph can be a single sentence, whether long, short, or middling.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Writing Center states on its website, "Many students define paragraphs in terms of length: a paragraph is a group of at least five sentences, a paragraph is half a page long, etc." The website explains, "Length and appearance do not determine whether a section in a paper is a paragraph. For instance, in some styles of writing, particularly journalistic styles, a paragraph can be just one sentence long."
According to The History of the English Paragraph (1894), by Edwin Herbert Lewis, many of history's greatest writers used one- and two-sentence paragraphs in their works, especially but not exclusively in dialog: Defoe, Bunyan, Laurence Sterne, Spenser, Scott, Dickens, Fielding, Hobbes, Bacon, George Eliot, Johnson, Locke, Lamb, Swift, De Quincey, Addison, Ruskin, Dryden, Sidney, and Milton. (Cited with percentages at http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2011/07/paragraph.html . The original thesis is available online at http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/edwin-herbert-lewis/the-history-of-the-english-paragraph-867.shtml . Various print copies have been scanned and made available, e.g., through Amazon.com.)
Misconception: Contractions are not appropriate in proper English. Bill Walsh lists this as one of the "big myths of English usage" and Patricia O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman write, "A lot of people ... still seem to think that contractions are not quite ... quite. If you do too, you're quite wrong." Writers such as Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, and others since Anglo-Saxon days have been "shrinking English". Some of the opinion makers in the 17th and 18th century eschewed contractions, but beginning in the 1920s, usage guides have allowed them. "Most writing handbooks now recommend contractions", but "there are still lots of traditionalists out there who haven't gotten the word", contributing to the modern myth that contractions are forbidden usage. A number of writing guides still recommend not to use contractions in academic and formal writing.
Misconception: "I feel badly" is the correct negative response to "How do you feel?" The expression "I feel badly" is often used in English, but it is not usually possible as a meaningful reply to this question because it means "I feel guilty" and implies or often requires an addition beginning with "about...". According to Paul Brians in Common Errors in English Usage, " 'I feel bad' is standard English", and " 'I feel badly' is an incorrect hyper-correction by people who think they know better than the masses."
Misconception: The phrase "begs the question" should not be used to mean "raises the question." "Begging the question" is a logical fallacy, but "most people now suppose the phrase implies something quite different: that the argument demands that a question about it be asked—raises the question", says Paul Brians. However, Merriam-Webster dictionaries allow both meanings.
Misconception: "Healthy" is not an appropriate adjective for describing food. According to Paul Brians, "Many argue 'people are healthy, but vegetables are healthful' "; however, "phrases like 'part of a healthy breakfast' have become so widespread that they are rarely perceived as erroneous except by the hyper-correct.
Misconception: Non-standard, slang, or colloquial words are not real words. For instance, despite appearing as a word in numerous dictionaries, "irregardless" is dismissed as "not a word" in some style guides. All words in English originated by becoming commonly used during a certain time period, thus there are many informal words currently regarded as "incorrect" in formal speech or writing. But the idea that they are somehow not words is a misconception. Examples of words that are sometimes alleged to be "not a word" include "conversate", "funnest", "impactful", "mentee" and "thusly". All of these appear in numerous dictionaries as English words.
Misconception: "Inflammable" means something that cannot burn. " 'Flammable' and 'inflammable' both mean 'easy to catch on fire', but so many people misunderstand the latter term that it's better to stick with 'flammable' in safety warnings", says Paul Brians.
Misconception: "Nauseous" cannot mean suffering from nausea. Some writers on language, such as Theodore Bernstein and Bill Bryson, have advanced the idea that "nauseous" means only causing nausea (synonymous with "nauseating") not suffering from it (which would be "nauseated"), and therefore it is incorrect to say "I am nauseous" (unless you mean to say "I inspire nausea in others"). This prescription is contradicted by vast evidence from English usage, and Merriam-Webster finds no source for the rule prior to a published letter by a physician, Deborah Leary, in 1949.
Misconception: "Xmas" is a secular plan to "take the Christ out of Christmas." "The usual suggestion is that 'Xmas' is ... an attempt by the ungodly to x-out Jesus and banish religion from the holiday." However, X stands for the Greek letter Chi, the starting letter of Χριστός, or "Christ" in Greek. (Also see the related Chi Rho symbol.) The use of the word "Xmas" can be traced to the year 1021 when "monks in Great Britain...used the X while transcribing classical manuscripts into Old English" in place of "Christ". The Oxford English Dictionary's "first recorded use of 'Xmas' for 'Christmas' dates back to 1551." Paul Brians adds that, "so few people know this that it is probably better not to use this popular abbreviation in religious contexts."
- 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.
See also 
- Jenny Cheshire, "Myth 14: Double Negatives are Illogical" in Bauer and Trudgill 1998. pp. 113–114.
- Close 1964. n.p. (Front matter.) In a footnote to this text, Close also points to English as a Foreign Language by R. A. Close (George Allen and Unwin, London, 1962).
- Cutts 2009. p. 109.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 21.
- Fogarty 2010. "Top Ten Grammar Myths."
- Fogarty 2011. pp. 45–46.
- Burchfield 1996. p. 617.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 22.
- Cutts 2009. p. 111.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 17.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. pp. 18–20.
- Howard 1984. p. 130.
- University of Chicago Writing Program.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 19.
- Butterfield 2008. p. 136.
- University of Chicago Press 2010. p. 257.
- Burchfield 1996. p. 52.
- Garner 2003. p. 44.
- Garner 2003. p. 118.
- Burchfield 1996. p. 121.
- Walsh 2004. pp. 61, 68–69.
- Pullum 2009.
- Brians 2009. p. 169.
- Fogarty 2010. "Active Voice Versus Passive Voice."
- Garner 2003. p. 592.
- Jenny Cheshire, "Myth 14: Double Negatives are Illogical" in Bauer and Trudgill. p. 113.
- O'Conner 2009. p. 208.
- O'Conner 2009. p. 217.
- O'Conner 2009. p. 241. (see litotes)
- Kephart, Ronald (February 27, 2009). "Double Negatives". The Cranky Linguist.
- Brians 2009. p. 70.
- Fogarty 2008. p. 85.
- Spencer 2011
- Bringhurst 2005. p. 39.
- Cutts 2009. p. 112.
- Nordquist 2011.
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2011.
- Walsh 2004. p. 61, 67–68.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. pp. 32–34.
- . Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School
-  Basic Composition.com
-  Illinois Valley Community College.
- American Heritage, usage note
- "I feel badly" can also mean "When it comes to feeling, I do it poorly."
- Brians 2009. p. 25.
- Brians 2009. p. 28.
- "Beg", Merriam-Webster online, accessed 3 November 2011, .
- Brians 2009. p. 108.
- Free Dictionary. "Irregardless"; Dictionary.com. "Irregardless"; Oxford English Dictionary. "Irregardless"; Cambridge Dictionaries Online. "Irregardless"; YourDictionary.com. "Irregardless"; BeeDictionary.com. "Irregardless"; Scrabble Word Finder. "Irregardless"; AllWords.com. "Irregardless"; Vocabulary.com. "Irregardless"; Collins Dictionaries. "Irregardless"; Lexicus. "Irregardless".
- "Common vocabulary errors". Missouri University of Science and Technology. 2012. Retrieved 2012-09-18. "Style Guide". University of Notre Dame. Retrieved 2012-09-18. "Tricky Words". University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved 2012-09-18.
- McIntyre, John (2011). "Don't hang the lexicographers". Retrieved 2012-09-27.
- Peters, Mark (2011). "Let's Bury the Not-a-Word Myth". Retrieved 2012-09-25.
- Carey, Stan (2010-07-12). "'Not a word' is not an argument". Retrieved 2012-09-25.
- Fogarty, Mignon (2008-09-12). "Is "Funnest" a Word?". Retrieved 2012-09-25.
- "Thusly is not a Word?". 2012-03-21. Retrieved 2012-09-25.
- Vokloh, Eugene (2007-08-23). "Is Not A Word". Retrieved 2012-09-25.
- Dictionary.com. "Conversate"; AllWords.com. "Conversate"; Lexicus. "Conversate".
- Dictionary.com. "Funnest"; Oxford English Dictionary. "Fun" Scrabble Word Finder. "Funnest"; AllWords.com. "Funnest"; Lexicus. "Funnest".
- Dictionary.com. "Impactful"; Oxford English Dictionary. "Impactful"; Scrabble Word Finder. "Impactful"; Collins Dictionaries. "Impactful"; Lexicus. "Impactful".
- Free Dictionary. "Mentee"; Dictionary.com. "Mentee"; Oxford English Dictionary. "Mentee"; YourDictionary.com. "Mentee"; Scrabble Word Finder. "Mentee"; AllWords.com. "Mentee"; Vocabulary.com. "Mentee"; Collins Dictionaries. "Mentee"; Lexicus. "Mentee".
- Free Dictionary. "Thusly"; Dictionary.com. "Thusly"; Oxford English Dictionary. "Thusly"; YourDictionary.com. "Thusly"; Scrabble Word Finder. "Thusly"; AllWords.com. "Thusly"; Vocabulary.com. "Thusly"; Collins Dictionaries. "Thusly"; Lexicus. "Thusly".
- Brians 2009. p. 124.
- Merriam-Webster 1995. p. 652.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 77.
- Bratcher 2007.
- O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 78.
- Brians 2009. p. 255.
- The Churchill Centre and Museum at the Churchill War Rooms, London 2011. (The original text is italicized.)
- Lloyd 1938. p. 19. cited in University of Chicago Press 2010. p. 257.
- Fogarty 2010. "Active Voice Versus Passive Voice."
- Bauer, Laurie; Trudgill, Peter, eds. (1998). Language Myths. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-026023-6.
- Bratcher, Dennis (3 December 2007). "The Origin of "Xmas"". CRI / Voice, Institute. Retrieved 10 June 2011.
- 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 0-19-869126-2.
- Butterfield, Jeremy (2008). Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-923906-1.
- 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 978-0-19-955850-6.
- Bringhurst, Robert (2005). The Elements of Typographic Style. Vancouver: Hartley and Marks. ISBN 0-88179-206-3.
- The Churchill Centre and Museum at the Churchill War Rooms, London. "Famous Quotations and Stories". Retrieved 30 August 2011.
- Fogarty, Mignon (2008). Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. New York: Holt Paperbacks. ISBN 978-0-8050-8831-1.
- Fogarty, Mignon (22 July 2010). "Active Voice Versus Passive Voice". Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. Retrieved 28 May 2011.
- Fogarty, Mignon (4 March 2010). "Top Ten Grammar Myths". Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. Retrieved 28 May 2011.
- Fogarty, Mignon (2011). Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students. New York: Henry Holt & Company. pp. 45–46. ISBN 978-0-8050-8943-1.
- Garner, Bryan A. (2003). Garner's Modern American Usage. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516191-2.
- Howard, Phillip (1984). The State of the Language: English Observed. London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-11346-6.
- Jury, David (2004). About Face: Reviving the Rules of Typography. Switzerland: Rotovision SA. ISBN 2-88046-798-5.
- 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. Retrieved 27 October 2011.
- Merriam-Webster (1995). Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam-Webster.
- Nordquist, Richard (2011). "Top Five Phony Rules of Writing". About.com. New York Times Company. Retrieved 8 June 2011.
- O'Conner, Patricia T.; Kellerman, Stewart (2009). Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-1-4000-6660-5.
- 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 978-1-59448-890-0.
- Pullum, Geoffrey K. (17 April 2009). "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice". The Chronicle Review. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 28 May 2011.
- Spencer, David (24 May 2011). "The Curious Misconception Surrounding Sentence Spacing". Type Desk. Matador. Retrieved 27 May 2011.
- Strizver, Ilene (2010). Type Rules!: The Designer's Guide to Professional Typography (3rd ed.). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-54251-4.
- University of Chicago Press (2010). The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-10420-1.
- University of Chicago Writing Program. "Grammar Resources". University of Chicago Writing Program. University of Chicago. Retrieved 25 October 2011.
- 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 978-0-07-142268-0.
- The Writing Center. "Paragraph Development". University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 27 May 2011.
- "The Free Dictionary". Farlex. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- "Dictionary.com". Dictionary.com LLC. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- "The Oxford English Dictionary". Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- "Cambridge Dictionaries Online". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- "YourDictionary". Love To Know Corporation. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- "BeeDictionary". Gyankosh Solutions. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- Shimoda, Dave. "Scrabble Word Finder". White Urchin Ventures. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- "Allwords.com". All Sites LLC. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- "Vocabulary.com". Vocabulary.com. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- "Collins Dictionaries". Collins. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- "Lexicus". Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- "English Dictionary". Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- "Free Scrabble Dictionary". Beelick, LLC. Retrieved 28 April 2013.
- Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman (2003). "Grammar Myths". Grammarphobia.com. Grammarphobia.com. Retrieved 4 June 2011.
- Richard Nordquist (2011). "Is It Wrong to End a Sentence in a Preposition?". About.com. New York Times Company. Retrieved 8 June 2011. Lists additional published sources that comment on ending a sentence with a preposition.