It’s great to see people talking about grammar and punctuation on blogs and LinkedIn, but some opinions being posted reflect the incomplete or incorrect information that has been in circulation for decades or longer.

This is not to blame anyone. People contribute based on information they learned, but it might not have been complete or based in fact.

 Many people do not realize that several grammar “rules” were arbitrarily introduced and were passed from generation to generation as the “correct” way to write. One example, perhaps the rule that sticks with Americans the most, is that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. Language historians and linguists, who study sentence structure going back centuries, chortle at such myths. They will tell you that where you put a preposition has nothing to do with the grammar of a sentence. The grammar of a sentence involves other things.

Deborah Cameron, a linguist at Worcester College in London, tells me that before the 1400s, there was no standard way to write English because texts were produced by hand and had limited circulation. But with the creation of the printing press (1455), texts were mass produced, more people were reading, and there was pressure to develop rules for a standard form of written English.

By the 1700s, rule making was at its peak. People were writing more and more grammar books, and they used Latin as a model because English was evolving partly from Latin. In Latin, you don’t put a preposition at the end because it can make the sentence confusing (instead, the preposition always precedes the object). If that’s the way it is in Latin, then English must be follow suit, insisted a group of language zealots in England in the mid-1800s. They wanted English to remain as much like Latin as possible, so they arbitrarily advocated no-preposition-at-the-end. 

The guideline is still enforced in many American schools, but chances are that if you ask most English teachers why, you would hear, “That’s just the way we do it,” which is not helpful.