Common English usage misconceptions

Common English usage misconceptions
Text from Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as it would appear in a professionally published edition in the United States today, featuring one-sentence paragraphs, sentences beginning with the conjunctions "but" and "and", single sentence spacing, hyphens and em dashes, and typographic quotation marks.

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

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".[1] But not all commonly held usage violations are errors; many are only perceived as such.[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.[2]



Misconception: A sentence must not end in a preposition. It is a myth that it is incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition.[3][4][5] Mignon Fogarty ("Grammar Girl") says, "nearly all grammarians agree that it's fine to end sentences with prepositions, at least in some cases."[6] Fowler's 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."[7] 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.[8] 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."[9] "Great literature from Chaucer to Milton to Shakespeare to the King James version of the Bible was full of so called terminal prepositions."[10] Winston Churchill is said to have written, "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put,"[11][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,[12] and it's "never been wrong to 'split' an infinitive".[13] In some cases it might be preferable to split an infinitive.[14][15] 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".[16] 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.' "[17]

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.[18] 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").[19]

Misconception: The words "and" and "but" must not begin a sentence. Jeremy Butterfield described this perceived prohibition as one of "the folk commandments of English usage".[20] 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.[21][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."[22] Garner's Modern American Usage adds, "It is rank superstition that this coordinating conjuction cannot properly begin a sentence."[23] 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)".[24] 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."[25]

Misconception: The passive voice is incorrect. This is an English myth[26] and "writing tutors" sometimes believe that the passive voice is to be avoided in all cases.[27] However, "There are legitimate uses for the passive voice," says Paul Brians.[28] Mignon Fogarty also points out that "passive sentences aren't incorrect",[29] and "If you don't know who is responsible for an action, passive voice can be the best choice."[30][d] 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."[31]

Misconception: Using double negatives is bad English. This myth[32] is included by Patricia O'Conner in a list of "bogus or worn out rules".[33] 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.[34] O'Connor provides the following as acceptable examples: "It's not inconceivable. She's not unappealing."[35] 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."[36]


From left to right, hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes in various fonts illustrating their relative lengths.

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.[37] Professionally published books, magazines, and newspapers also use a single space between sentences, but even this is widely overlooked.[38]

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"[39] 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."[40]

Misconception: Hyphens and dashes have the same meaning. According to David Jury, "a prevailing lack of typographic knowledge mean[s] that the hyphen is, today, commonly used for all dashes, just as it was when this was due to the technical limitations of the typewriter."[41] These characters "all have different purposes, but they are often confused and misused".[42]

Misconception: Straight quotation marks (or "dumb" quotes) are the same as quotation marks. According to Ilene Strizver, "Misuse of 'dumb' quotes is one of the most common typographical faux pas, which is repeatedly found in high-end print, multimedia advertising, movie credits, as well as non-professional work."[43] These "refugees from the typewriter keyboard ... have no typographic function".[44] Unlike "smart" modern text-editing software, typewriters cannot differentiate the beginning of a quote from the end and simply produce straight quotes when the quote key is pressed. Computer code, email, and other plain-text computer media typically use "dumb" quotes as well, because curved quotation marks are not included in the ASCII character set.[citation needed]

Typographic quotation marks (top) versus straight quotation marks, or "dumb quotes" (bottom).


Misconception: Paragraphs must comprise at least three sentences.[e] This is an English myth.[45] 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".[46] 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.[47]

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."[48] Many of history's greatest writers used one and two sentence paragraphs in their works.

Misconception: Contractions aren't appropriate in proper English. Bill Walsh lists this as one of the "big myths of English usage"[49] 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,"[50] contributing to the modern myth that contractions are forbidden usage.

Misconception: "I feel badly" is the correct negative response to "How do you feel?" 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."[51]

Misconception: The phrase "begs the question" is synonymous with "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.[52] However, Merriam-Webster dictionaries allow both meanings.[53]


"Xmas" used on a Christmas postcard (1910).

Misconception: "Healthy" is an incorrect adjective to describe a 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.[54]

Misconception: "Irregardless" is not a word. Merriam-Webster states that, "The most frequently repeated remark about it is that 'there is no such word.' "[55] According to Mignon Fogarty, this is an English myth. "You shouldn't use it if you want to be taken seriously, but it has gained wide enough use to qualify as a word."[56]

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.[57]

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.[58]

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."[59] However, X stands for the Greek letter Chi, the starting letter of Χριστός, or "Christ" in Greek.[60] (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".[61] The Oxford English Dictionary's "first recorded use of 'Xmas' for 'Christmas' dates back to 1551."[62] Paul Brians adds that, "so few people know this that it is probably better not to use this popular abbreviation in religious contexts."[63]


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".[64]
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."[65]
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,"[66] 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".[67]
e.^ Or any other arbitrary number.

See also


  1. ^ Jenny Cheshire, "Myth 14: Double Negatives are Illogical" in Bauer and Trudgill 1998. pp. 113–114.
  2. ^ 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).
  3. ^ Cutts 2009. p. 109.
  4. ^ O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 21.
  5. ^ Fogarty 2010. "Top Ten Grammar Myths."
  6. ^ Fogarty 2011. pp. 45–46.
  7. ^ Burchfield 1996. p. 617.
  8. ^ Cutts 2009. p. 109.
  9. ^ O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 22.
  10. ^ O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 21.
  11. ^ O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 21.
  12. ^ Cutts 2009. p. 111.
  13. ^ O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 17.
  14. ^ Cutts 2009. p.111.
  15. ^ O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. pp. 18–20.
  16. ^ Howard 1984. p. 130.
  17. ^ University of Chicago Writing Program.
  18. ^ O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 19.
  19. ^ Cutts 2009. p. 111.
  20. ^ Butterfield 2008. p. 136.
  21. ^ University of Chicago Press 2010. p. 257.
  22. ^ Burchfield 1996. p. 52.
  23. ^ Garner 2003. p. 44.
  24. ^ Garner 2003. p. 118.
  25. ^ Burchfield 1996. p. 121.
  26. ^ Walsh 2004. pp. 61, 68–69.
  27. ^ Pullum 2009.
  28. ^ Brians 2009. p. 169.
  29. ^ Fogarty 2010. "Active Voice Versus Passive Voice."
  30. ^ Fogarty 2010. "Top Ten Grammar Myths."
  31. ^ Garner 2003. p. 592.
  32. ^ Jenny Cheshire, "Myth 14: Double Negatives are Illogical" in Bauer and Trudgill. p. 113.
  33. ^ O'Conner 2009. p. 208.
  34. ^ O'Conner 2009. p. 217.
  35. ^ O'Conner 2009. p. 241.
  36. ^ Brians 2009. p. 70.
  37. ^ Fogarty 2008. p. 85.
  38. ^ Spencer 2011.
  39. ^ Bringhurst 2005. p. 39.
  40. ^ Bringhurst 2005. p. 39.
  41. ^ Jury 2004. p. 148.
  42. ^ Strizver 2010. p. 200.
  43. ^ Strizver 2010. p. 200.
  44. ^ Bringhurst 2005. p. 308.
  45. ^ Cutts 2009. p. 112.
  46. ^ Nordquist 2011.
  47. ^ Cutts 2009. p. 112.
  48. ^ University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2011.
  49. ^ Walsh 2004. p. 61, 67–68.
  50. ^ O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. pp. 32–34.
  51. ^ Brians 2009. p. 25.
  52. ^ Brians 2009. p. 28.
  53. ^ "Beg", Merriam-Webster online, accessed 3 November, 2011, [1].
  54. ^ Brians 2009. p. 108.
  55. ^ Merriam-Webster 2011.
  56. ^ Fogarty 2010. "Top Ten Grammar Myths."
  57. ^ Brians 2009. p. 124.
  58. ^ Merriam-Webster 1995. p. 652.
  59. ^ O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 77.
  60. ^ Bratcher 2007.
  61. ^ O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 77.
  62. ^ O'Conner and Kellerman 2009. p. 78.
  63. ^ Brians 2009. p. 255.
  64. ^ The Churchill Centre and Museum at the Churchill War Rooms, London 2011. (The original text is italicized.)
  65. ^ Lloyd 1938. p. 19. cited in University of Chicago Press 2010. p. 257.
  66. ^ Brians 2009. p. 169.
  67. ^ Fogarty 2010. "Active Voice Versus Passive Voice."


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