THANKS A LOT, LATIN




Don't get me wrong. Latin matters. Where would we be if we couldn't get a bonus in our paychecks, try on an extra-large when a large doesn't fit, sing "Stick to the Status Quo," quote someone verbatim, mix up i.e. ("that is") and e.g. ("for example"), argue about whether there was quid pro quo going on with Ukraine, etc.?


(All who are sick of politics, say aye!)


On the other hand, Latinor, more accurately, those who were/are a bit overzealous about ittends to cause a lot of problems for users of English. To dramatically oversimplify the story, for much of European history, Latin was the language of the elite: the Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church, and so on. As English developed into a distinct language, many people saw it as a "vulgar" (i.e., common) tongue. After all, it was the language of the often-illiterate peasants; only the educated understood Latin.


Eventually, some people wanted to increase the prestige of English. So they decided it should be more like Latin. That's how we got some of the rules that your high-school English teachers might have tried to drill into you:


  • Never end a sentence with a preposition. 

  • Never split an infinitive. 


People who cling to these rules will get all bent out of shape when they see phrasing like "The investigators have nothing to go on" or "To boldly go where no one has gone before." 


But guess what?


You don't have to follow those rules! 


In fact, they don't even make sense for English. Here's why:


  • Because of how syntax (the way words are put together to form sentences) works in Latin, you can't end a Latin sentence with a preposition. I couldn't find a clear explanation, but if I understand correctly, Latin prepositions have to have words immediately after them to clarify what the prepositions refer to. But in English, you can separate prepositions from the words they refer to and still understand the intended meaning.

  • Furthermore, if you try not to end a sentence with a preposition, you often end up with something clunky. For example, an apocryphal story claims that someone once criticized Winston Churchill for breaking this "rule," whereupon he snarked back, "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I shall not put." 🙄

  • In Latin, an infinitive is a single word, such as amāre ("to love"). If you tried to split a Latin infinitive, you'd confuse everyone. But in English, infinitives are two words, such as to do. There's nothing wrong with splitting them as long as your meaning remains clear.

  • As with the previous "rule," trying to follow this one often leads to clunkiness. For instance, the iconic opening narration of Star Trek loses a lot of its iambic rhythm if we turn it into "To go boldly where no one has gone before."


So, as much as we appreciate Latin and our well-meaning English teachers, we can set them aside here. English isn't Latin and never will be. It's a confusing but beautiful mishmash of a language that plays by no rules but its own. To quote my inimitable medieval-literature professor:


"English doesn't just borrow words. It follows them into dark alleys and beats them up and rifles through their wallets. It wants what it wants." 

Of course, old writing habits die hard. But if I can learn to type one space between sentences instead of two (we'll save that story for another day), you can learn to split infinitives and end sentences with prepositions as needed. And I think you'll find that you have a lot fewer headaches in the long run.


Write on,

Candice


P.S. To have me tackle these issues and all the other grammar, punctuation, and other tricky problems in your manuscript for you, click here to book a free discovery call so we can get started! 


(Thanks to Mathew Schwartz for sharing their work on Unsplash.)

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