Do not fear the delusional bugbears

Lisa McLendon of Grammar Monkeys asked on Twitter for people to suggest nutty non-rules of grammar – that is, things that certain people insist on but that aren’t really rules of grammar. These are usually things that a parent or English teacher has drilled into one’s head at an early age, that don’t have any clear rationale and yet still exert great psychological force.

My contribution was unoriginal – the infinitive, like the atom, can be split with productive effects – and I generally agree that the others listed are daftly arbitrary. (There is a very, very senior member of our organisation who I think would benefit from abandoning a few of his pet non-rules.)

But this got me wondering: what is it that makes a non-rule? Good language use is at root about conventions that are broadly accepted rather than decrees that are imposed from on high, so the concept of a grammatical ‘rule’ gets a bit fuzzy around the edges. Obviously a non-rule is a minority usage, but most minority usages – even if they’re consistent conventions within that minority – don’t purport to be rules.

And that’s the key: the delusion of grandeur. So a non-rule is a minority convention used predominantly by prescriptivists. It’s a village bugbear set loose to terrorise the entire land. But don’t be afraid: they can only hurt you if you believe in them.

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