Lies Your High School English Teacher Told You . . .

Kids go to college with all sorts of misinformation, and they can be very unwilling to let it go. How do you explain to someone that their most favorite English teacher of all time told them a wee fib about grammar and / or punctuation? How do you explain to someone who’s eighteen (and therefore, we’ll all recall from our own eighteen-hood, knows everything. How do you tell them) that they are wrong about things they have long been told by teachers that they are right about?

How many of us were taught the ‘pause’ rule? This is the “rule” taught to kids that goes something like this (hum along, if you like): Every time you pause in the reading of a sentence, place a comma at the place you pause. Shoot me now. People read at different paces, emphasize different things, pause for emphasis, even. Surprisingly to people who had “pause rule” teachers, punctuation has nothing to do with the pace at which you read aloud (nor with whether or not you move your lips at all when you read). Really. I promise. Commas go in all sorts of places, and one thing you can almost always know is that you most likely don’t need them in all the places you have them. For some reason, writers use commas like seasoning . . . peppering them all over the place, for flavor. (I have a bad habit of doing that with ellipses . . . I just like them.)

Ooooh, or how about the very famous and equally wrong “never begin a sentence with the word ‘and’ or ‘but’”? Another fave of the junior high and high school teaching brigade. If you’ve been told these things, forget them immediately; they’re wrong. And silly. A pause rule, indeed! And how can it be incorrect to begin a sentence with the word “and”? Didn’t I just do just that? And it’s a proper, complete sentence (as is this one.).

Now some misinformation is just funny. I love the syntactic tangles that people who believe the “you cannot end a sentence with a preposition” rule get themselves into (see, I did it again): “This a rule up with which I will not put.” This sort of craziness just makes me laugh. That’s my favorite one, but then there’s the one about the English teacher whose student asked her some question, and the teacher replied, “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” To which the precocious student replies, “blah blah with, Lady.” (only not “Lady,” of course). But you can end sentences with prepositions in English. And you often should.

The last one that I’ll write about today is the “split infinitive” (infinitives, to remind you, are “to” verbs: to go, to walk, to run, to shop, to watch, etc.); this one is open to a bit more debate than the others, but ultimately, it’s as dead as the dodo, or more punnily, as dead as Latin. We’ve been told we can’t split infinitives because of some sentence structure stuff dealing with Latin grammar—just as with the preposition thing; however, this idea is based on a language that is not a perfect match for English and whose rules cannot therefore be applied to English. So if you want to randomly split an infinitive, feel free to spontaneously do so (see, I just did it there. Twice. Cool, huh?). The bit of debate here is rooted mostly in tradition, but frankly, it often makes more sense and is more precise to place the modifier either before or after the infinitive and not right in the middle.

Other misconceptions probably don’t come from English teachers at all. Take the misuse of “I” when “you” would be correct, for instance—Won’t you sit down and enjoy a glass of wine with Jensen and I? That’s wrong. It’s “with Jensen and me”—the object of a preposition is “me” not “I.” (Oops, didn’t mean to explain the rules, I didn’t want to be quite that boring.) Remember that April Wine song “Just Between You and Me”? It’s grammatically correct. It IS just between you and me. Not you and I. Unless you and I are going to the mall, in which case it is I with whom you are going (hehe, see what I did there with the preposition? I love this stuff.).

But you may not. So here endeth today’s lesson. Okay, it was more of a long, self-indulgent monologue. But, hey, what’s the dif?

_____________________________________________________

I don’ t know if or how much this differs from . . . um, English, that version you lot speak and write in . . . well, England. But I would love to learn any differences or modifications. Yes, I’m that much of a geek.

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25 thoughts on “Lies Your High School English Teacher Told You . . .

  1. Oh you naughty little rule breaker. Get your rule out and we’ll see just how special you are. Blah blah blah I can’t begin to remember all those silly little rules. And based on how most people write, I believe they missed most of their English classes….

  2. And English teacher told me once that if I have trouble deciding how to write or speak a sentence like: Mother and I will be going to the mall, or Why don’t you come over for a visit with Tammy and me, that I should leave out the other name and say or write the sentence with only the I or only the me and if it sounds right …. do it. Like: Why don’t you come over for a visit with “me”. You wouldn’t even think of saying,
    Why don’t you come over for a visit with I. Nor would you say..Me will be going to the mall. Always worked for me…I never even got all those rules. I see if it sounds good and isn’t repetitive and then check with my tools in Word…and let it go…LOL…I just can’t seem to follow rules well. Its good to hear from and English teacher that we don’t have to worry about it anymore. You should be editing my book. LOL

  3. Oops…look I started my sentence with And …and it was a mistake this time…its supposed to be An English teacher. lol

  4. I used to love the technical end of writing, but these days, I love to “hear” the person who is doing the writing. Just something about taking the ya’ll out of southern writing that just doesn’t seem right. I personally do not use this word ***rolling my eyes*** but love it when I hear some one say, “ya’ll come back now, you hear.” 🙂

  5. Good morning Fuzz…what a joy to hear about your passion this morning! Some would hardly consider me qualified, but I taught writing; at the 5th grade level. I had two major rules. The placement of commas was worth arguing about as long as you thought about HOW you were using them. Second, I was guilty of banning “But and And from the start of sentences. I didn’t set out to teach it as wrong, I was more intent on improving the speech and conversation of hick town America. Of course, then one of my students would bring me a page of Gary Paulsen’s books (a favorite author in the male demographic aged 8 to 12) and look at the way he started every other sentence with “but” or “and”. My usual reply was when you can fashion a page of dialog like Gary Paulsen then have at er’.

  6. Fuzzy, my grammar is awful, it is just I had so much aversion. My father was willing to taught me Grammar, he is very good at it, but I just neglected. Told him that I am going to be Engineer, I won’t be needing Grammar, how silly I look now. That is one thing I would like master. I wish they have some International rules of English Grammar, so everyone can follow the same, I learnt British system till high school then switched to American system. Forgive my errors 🙂

  7. I just cannot believe that dear Gregg just wrote something so biased as “hick town America.” I just knew that he was an “open” and “non-discriminating person.” ***shaking my head in utter disbelief*** Now look what you have start Warm Fuzzy! 🙂

  8. Hi Fuzzy!
    Teenagers today, as well as some college and uni grads, have NO idea about grammar as it isn’t taught in the schools. Their spelling is atrocious, too! My daughter, who has a learning disability similar to dyslexia, had to have extra help in school, and we did everything we could here at home to help as well. When I spoke to one of the programme teachers about her troubles with spelling, I was told perhaps it would be best to let Mallory be as creative as she wanted with the spelling, and spell check would correct the errors…

    What the…?!?!? {Cue frustrated spluttering from me…}

    Sigh. @@ hugs, G. xo {ALSO an ellipses junkie}

  9. I love this post as well. I had to smile at the sprinkling analogy!! just dash of this comma and what the hell lets throw in a semi-colon for good measure, as well; cuz we never know what the other person may perceive , since their perception is… their own unique reality! ROFL

  10. Hehe, Heyman, thanks for the comment! :))

    Hi Mavis, that’s actually a pretty good way to remember that one. And some of your examples are funny; I love that. :))

    Hey Pris, yes, I think that there is a huge difference between “formal” and “informal” writing and among a variety of styles. I love reading fiction and blogs and emails (etc.) that capture a tone or personality . . . so much more fun than “proper” writing is to read. But formal writing to my mind should remain formal, so that means I write one way here and one way in my work (a probably boring and uninteresting aside: in my own writing, I don’t split infinitives. Ever. Drives me nuts! :))

    Gregg, again, I’m not sure what to say to your comment about comma placement being . . . intuitive or expressive. But I do understand why teachers tell kids not to begin sentences with “And” or “But”; it’s an attempt to teach them to write in complete sentences, not fragments, usually. And that may be okay in fifth grade, but by the time students reach high school, they should be able to write a complete sentence and recognize a fragment. But that’s just my crazy high standard for education. LOL And how great that your student brought in that book; that sort of curiosity and interest should be nurtured. Those annoying little students who see everything you say as a challenge may keep you on your toes, but at least they’re thinking about what you’re teaching and trying to figure it out. Your response is a version of the classic: You have to know the rules before you can break them. And that works. :))

    Chris you write very well, and this really goes back to what I was saying to Pris about formal and informal writing. I don’t think that blogs and the comments we make around blogland can be held to the same high standards as an essay you may give your college professor or as a research grant proposal you may send to the government. I get a bit frustrated, actually, when I see people on blogs complain about bad spelling and grammar–that’s usually what people resort to when they don’t want to deal with someone’s point (attacking the way they said what they said; it’s a sure sign of weakness in that case.). Typos and mistakes and misspellings happen to everyone (that’s why published writers need their editors!), and for me, at least, as long as it falls in the “informal” column, such things are not a big deal. That’s a long way of saying, I don’t notice your mistakes if you make them, Chris!! Huggs.

    LOL, Pris, yes, I saw that. I chose to ignore it. I see these problems in Boston, MA, so it’s really not a “small town” problem; it’s a nationwide teaching problem.

    Oh, Gloria, how awful!! But what you describe is representative of all that I dislike about the way education is heading; I’m not a fan of the student “finding” their way or learning “creatively.” But that’s a whole other rant for a whole other day. Huggs, though, from one elipsis junkie to another! xx

    LOL, Spicy, no worries; when I blog, I’m “off duty.” I just waded through a stack of diagnostic essays, and these are the problems that I see again and again, so I thought it’d make a good topic. :))

    Thank you so much, Kerry!! :))

    Thanks, River. And lol on the perception prescription for punctuation! (how do you like that alliteration? Teehee). :))

  11. Hei Fuzz.

    I just love languages and am fascinated by the makings of each one!! My comment is going to be extra-short for heading to beddie-byes ASAP and me brain is already zzzz… Great blog. NITEY NITE to You and the others commenting and reading this. Rii who is soo freezing in the Frozen Finland. Brr..xx

  12. Oh hey Fuzzy,

    Boy do I wish that I read your blog before I just wrote mine! I think I added far toooooo many commas as I was taught the pause rule and just read it through and added a load more than I had! Boy do I feel silly now. I was always taught not to start a sentence with and as well and don’t get me started on the me and I thing! I was in set 1 of English class at school and I have absolutely no idea how I got there, due to the above reasons. Please ignore my errors on my page won’t you. LOL Hugs to you x

  13. Thanks, Rii; I love this sort of thing, too, so it’s fun to share with everyone. Take care and STAY WARM. Lots of honest huggs to your frozen but dignified self. xx

    Oh my, Snuggles, please don’t be self-conscious! I screw up things on here all the time; it happens. Heck I had “they’re” for “their” until just now. Talk about a screw up. :)) No worries. You’re the rockingest! Huggs.

  14. HEy Fuzzy, i use commas for when i think they belong in a sentence. I will start a sentence any way it needs to start. It really depends on the status of the writing at the time, as far as Im concerned. BUT, when I am reading another persons writing, as irritating as it can be for me, I see where punctuation should be, in my mind. it drives me nuts, and I really shouldnt do it. I have reread single sentences over and over because it doesnt sound right to me, depending on punctuation placement. Im such an expert. roflmao.

  15. These days I’m in love with gerunds. I keep titling my blogs with them. Interesting words that keep life moving… (yes, I love ellipses, too!)

  16. This blog topic is especially good for me right now. Well, for the past 9 years! Brits use the english language completely different then we do and there puncuation is horrible. Everything my high school and university English teachers taught me is all wrong according to them. And now that I have been working for a Scottish Chief Executive for the past 4 years things have only gotten worse. Scottish use English differently from the English and from us. oh bother!

    But you can end sentences with prepositions in English. And you often should!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OMG! I knew it! I just knew it. This is one of the Scot’s biggest grips with me! LOL!

    Don’t even get me on how they use comma’s over here! Its a wonder I can write at all. I have never been great at English! I past with A’s but it took everything I had…Now in Speech I got A+! I am a great public speaker and do alot of it daily in work, but make me write it down and I go all to pot! Thank goodness one of my employees is an English teacher!

    Arggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

  17. lol, Claudia, you are too funny!! Sometimes I have to read my own sentences over and over because I use sentences as modifiers or something equally silly, but I want that effect, so . . . :)) Huggs

    Loving the gerunds, Jillene. hehe :))

    Ooooh, how very very interesting, but I suppose that Scottish people WOULD use English differently; just hadn’t thought of it before. Fascinating. And BBB, it looks to me like you are extremely successful at your career, so no worries about a bit of comma controversy! LOL Huggs

    Wow, Chris, this is great! I’m going to give it to a lot of people to use, thanks so much. You totally rock. Huggs.

  18. Oh, so you are a stickler for grammar? Now I am really going to be self conscious when I comment. (LOL)
    I was one of those geeks in school that LOVED diagraming sentences.
    It just clicked for me (that and Algebra) but not until 10th grade. I had “the teacher” that no one liked. He kicked kids out of his classroom on a daily basis as he tolerated NO bad behaviour. I learned more from him than any other teacher that I had ever had in school. He retired from teaching and I recently saw him working part time at a funeral home as a host. After thirty-some years, he remembered me!! I think it was because Wendy and I were the only ones able to solve his hardest diagraming assignment. :0) (me puffed up with pride)
    I have slid far away since school, I’m afraid.

  19. Yay You! Nancy. I loved diagraming sentences, it was such fun and always made perfect sense to me (unlike Algebra). We don’t really teach that anymore, and it’s a shame. I kid you not, I stand in front of a twenty college students and ask them to identify the subject and verb in a sentence (this in a desperate attempt to teach proper comma use in a compound sentence), and they look at me blankly. I want to cry. But diagraming made sure we knew all the parts and their names and where they went and why. A fabulous lost art!! I loved teachers like that; they were always my favorites, but you’re not really allowed to teach like that anymore. It’s more about popularity with the students than actually conveying information and learning. Ugh. I could go on and on about education. But I won’t. Just yay you!! :)) Huggs for days xx

  20. LOL! My God, that was my punctuation and grammar teaching to a t. It never felt natural! And I definitely over-use commas! 🙂

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