Incorrect Corrections



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Apostrophe problems


Fowler (Modern English Usage, second edition) described "literary rules and conventions misapplied or unduly revered" as fetishes.  In his entry on superstitions he wrote of "the havoc that is wrought by unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma", and that "to let oneself be so far possessed by blindly accepted conventions as to take a hand in enforcing them on other people is to lose the independence of judgement that would enable one to solve the numerous problems for which there are no rules of thumb".  Quite so.

Among the rules "unduly revered" which he lists are

Some of these (and other) false rules are further discussed below.

Split Infinitives

To avoid an unfounded charge of illiteracy, you might feel the need to avoid splitting your infinitives, but don't feel obliged to.  If there is no way to avoid the split without introducing ambiguity, go ahead and split without regret, and refer your uninformed critics to Fowler.  He called slavish obedience to such unfounded rules a fetish.

A Daily Telegraph report (27th August 2003) said:

  • A family doctor who installed a camera secretly to film a woman using his bathroom ...

which is unclear: was the installation secret or is the sentence a clumsy attempt to avoid a split infinitive?

Some other sentences where splitting is unavoidable:

  • I have to refuse to promise to help to write it.

If you want to refuse to definitely promise, how could you do it without splitting and without ambiguity?

  • As soon as I read the book I decided to immediately agree to film it if she asked me.

In this case immediately splits to agree, but where else could it sensibly be put?

Sometimes people avoid splitting a non-infinitive: to be greatly regretted is not a split infinitive (the verb is "to be"), but people feel the need to write greatly to be regretted.

Why is splitting an infinitive worse than splitting any other tense?  Why do people who would never dream of splitting an infinitive happily split the future tense, as in I will probably be going?

Different to

Modern English Usage, third edition, says "The commonly expressed view that different should only be followed by from and never by to or than is not supportable in the face of past and present evidence or of logic".  After a run through the (long) history of the phrase, it concludes "The principle upon which different to is questioned is based on the premiss that we do not say differ to.  By this argument, all words in the same morphological family should be construed with the same prepositions; e.g. we ought to say according with (instead of according to) because we say accords with.  Contrast also full of with filled with; proud of with pride in."

None is

None may be singular or plural as sense demands; there is no need to make it always singular.  See, for example, Modern English Usage, third edition.  These are all perfectly acceptable:

  • None of them have finished their essays.
  • None of the survivors were injured.
  • None of the money has been spent.
  • None but fools have ever believed it.

Between and Among

Modern English Usage, second edition, says:

The OED gives a warning against the superstition that between can be used only of the relationship between two things, and that if there are more among is the right preposition.  "In all senses between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to more than two ... It is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many other things severally and individually; among expresses a relation to them collectively and vaguely: we should not say the space lying among the three points or a treaty among the three Powers."  But the superstition dies hard.

and But

That a sentence should not start with And is the main of Fowler's "superstitions", and I would say the same of But. The third edition of Modern English Usage (ed. Burchfield) says:

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.  An initial And is a useful aid to writers as the narrative continues.  The OED provides examples from the 9c. to the 19c., including one from Shakespeare's King John: Arthur. Must you with hot Irons burne out both mine eyes? Hubert. Yong Boy, I must. Arthur. And will you? Hubert. And I will.  It is also used for other rhetorical purposes, and sometimes just to introduce an improvised afterthought: Tibba still pined and slavered for the school lunches. And little other care hath she. – A.N.Wilson 1982; I'm going to swim. And don't you dare watch – G.Butler, 1983.  It is also used in expressing surprise at, or asking the truth of, what one has already heard: O John! and you have seen him! And are you really going? – 1884 in OED.

Bill Bryson puts it more succinctly in Troublesome Words:

The belief that and should not be used to begin a sentence is without foundation.  And that's all there is to it.

Preposition At End

It is often said that a sentence should not end with a preposition, so they broke everything they could lay their hands on should be recast as they broke everything on which they could lay their hands.

In a long article, Modern English Usage, second edition, traces the origins of this "cherished superstition" and ends with the advice: "Follow no arbitrary rule but remember there are often two or more possible arrangements between which a choice should be consciously made.  If the final preposition that has naturally presented itself sounds comfortable, keep it."

In a sentence like "we should take account of what the readers will be comfortable with" it would be absurd to put the preposition anywhere but at the end.

It was Fowler whom Churchill was quoting when he famously said that such a rule was an imposition "up with which I will not put".

The matter is further complicated by the fact that many words are used sometimes as a preposition but at other times as an adverb or as part of a complex verb. Consider these:

  • The aeroplane took off.
  • The man came in. Then he went out.
  • When I couldn't do my job, my boss took over.
  • It's something you have to put up with.
  • It's hard job but I have to take it on.
  • The print is too small. I can't make it out.
  • What a great book! I just couldn't put it down.
  • How did I come across?
  • My parents left me well provided for.

Nothing wrong with any of those, even though they end in words such as with, for, out, on, and down which are, in other contexts, used as prepositions.

Here are some prepositional endings and some attempted rewrites. You can see that the original is almost always better than the rewrite (other than, perhaps, in the most formal of situations).

  • He's a man you shouldn't trifle with. (...with whom you shouldn't trifle.)
  • They got more than they bargained for. (They got more than that for which they bargained.)
  • Guess who I bumped into. (Guess into whom I bumped.)
  • He's someone you can count on. (...on whom you can count.)
  • It's an opportunity I'd leap at. ( which I'd leap.)

You and I

"You and I" has become such a common correction to children who say, for example, "you and me should go to school together" that people incorrectly extend it to places where "me" would be correct, and therefore "you and me" is correct. A correspondent tells me that he was corrected recently when saying "she sent it to you and me" – he was told it should be "she sent it to you and I".

Wreaked or Wrought

In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina which devastated parts of the southern United States in August 2005, many reports described how the storm wreaked havoc (a phrase which has almost become idiomatic – havoc is almost always wreaked, very rarely caused).

Some people complained that the past tense of wreak is wrought, and that wreaked is incorrect, so the storm should been said to have wrought havoc. Any dictionary will show wreaked as the valid past tense of wreak. Wrought is the (archaic) past tense of work; it could be acceptable to say a storm wrought havoc (in the sense of "worked havoc", just as a play may "work its magic") but there is nothing wrong with wreaked havoc. Indeed, of the two, wrought havoc is the more likely to be seen as incorrect.


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