The Grammar Policeman

After a few conversations this week between me and others, I had to check into my grammar usage.  I’m not a professional writer – yet, but I always seem to think I know enough to write some decent articles and essays.  I researched some controversial grammatical errors to see if I might be wrong and I’m not sure I like what I found.

Split Infinitives

I have always tried my best to possibly avoid split infinitives.  Did you catch it?  I just split an infinitive.  The phrase “to possibly avoid” is a split infinitive.  I placed an adverb in between the infinitive “to avoid”.  I found out this week that sometimes, split infinitives are okay to use. 

How can a split infinitive be okay?  When is it okay?  Rephrasing that phrase above is clumsy.  I could have written “to avoid possibly using split infinitives”, but that doesn’t sound right, does it?  The rephrase actually changes the meaning of the sentence.  Or, I could have written “tried my best possibly to avoid split infinitives”.  That sounds worse and doesn’t seem to make any sense.  Even the way it is written, “to possibly avoid”, is awkward. 

The reason why spilt infinitives are considered to be inappropriate grammar is that you cannot split an infinitive in Latin.  I didn’t know that, and I took Latin I in high school.  Sister Isiah gave me a “D”.  The only thing I remember from my Latin days is “tempus fugit” – time flies.  However, I did understand Latin enough to know about root words and how to easily figure out the meaning of a word by working around the root word (I slipped another one in).  Latin also helped me as a paralegal.  A significant amount of legalese is based in Latin.

The most famous split infinitive is the notorious “To boldly go” from Star Trek.  I’m not a Trekkie, but if millions of people throughout the world understand and accept that famous phrase, who am I to inanely question it?

Dangling Prepositions

Ending a sentence with a preposition is another grammatical mistake I tend to avoid.  This isn’t only when I’m writing, but when I speak, also. 

I’m reminded of a joke you may have heard:

She: “Where ya from?”

Her: “I’m from a place where we don’t end our sentences with prepositions.”

She: “Oh, I’m sorry.  Where ya from, bitch?”

In researching for this blog, I discovered that it is now acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition, under certain circumstances, that is.  What is this world coming to?  Oh, look what I did.  Perhaps it is appropriate at times to leave a preposition hanging at the end.  How else would you phrase that question of where the world is going?  “This world is coming to what?”  People might think you come from a foreign country speaking like that.  Or, perhaps they might think you were in another Star Trek planet in a far-off galaxy.

I had always thought this was Iowa talk.  However, I see that it is common language all over the world.  “Where you at?”  “Where you going to?”  Yes, the word “are” is implied, which makes it a complete sentence, even though the preposition is hanging.  But both sentences may be understood simply by leaving the prepositions “at” and “to” in the grammar box.  I think I speak leaving prepositions behind.  I rarely listen to myself.  And let me apologize for beginning a previous sentence with a conjunction (But).  Oh, my, I did it again with the sentence prior to this one.  Conjunctions should follow commas, not periods.

Sympathy/empathy

I have to admit; I have never been very good at distinguishing the difference between empathy and sympathy. 

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”  Can you understand or share feelings if you haven’t been through the same experience?  For instance, when asked about whether Iowa would be a haven for immigrant children from Central American, former Iowa Governor-for-life Terry Branstad said the “first thing we need to do is secure the border. I do have empathy for these kids.”  Using that logic, that he knows what those children are feeling and sharing those feelings, could he then empathize with a woman going through childbirth?  Could he share that feeling?  If I should ask any woman, I think she would say unpleasant things to me to mildly insinuate that Governor Branstad could imagine such a feeling.  (This is not a test, but did you notice I slipped a split infinitive in there?)

Going back to the reference above about root words.  Empathy’s root word is “empath”.  “An empath is someone who is highly aware of the emotions of those around them, to the point of feeling those emotions themselves.” Or, an Empath is a creature on Star Trek. 

Sympathy has two meanings; 1. “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.”  And, 2. “understanding between people; common feeling.”  I think it’s that second meaning that confuses people when attempting to properly use the correct word.  (I did it again; I used a split infinitive.)

Several times I have seen empathy used when a person means sympathy, and I’ve witnessed people using sympathy when they mean to use empathy.  I have now self-taught myself to be confused about the two words and their meanings, especially since it is now determined by grammar police that the two are somewhat interchangeable.  I give up.  The best suggestion I have to avoid getting empathy and sympathy mixed up is to never use either and look at both with apathy. 

Grammar is becoming a lost art.  So many of those English grammar skills that nuns taught me are passé.  It makes me feel that by just throwing words together that follow no rules could be the beginning of a career in writing Hip-Hop music.  Music?  Did I really put music in the same sentence as Hip-Hop?

Other grammatical tragedies

I don’t like it when authors use an incomplete sentence for effect.  I’m sticking to that objection.

Andy Rooney, of Sixty Minutes fame, once had a small segment on proper grammar.  I’ll never forget how he suggested some of us need to live in the real world.  He admitted that when he walked into the house he yelled to his wife: “It’s me”, instead of the grammatically correct, “It is I.” 

I learned a lot from Andy Rooney.

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