Good, bad and ugly: The changing rules of grammar

Since the dawn of time – or at least since the first cavemen started chiselling on stone tablets – people have debated what constitutes proper use of language. Fact is, grammar is fluid and as times and trends change, writers adapt the rules – for better or worse. Here are five examples of grammar faux pas that are now generally accepted.

1. Using certain nouns as adjectives

As an example, it used to be that “American” was the adjective and “U.S.” (or “America”) was the noun. However, it’s now accepted to say something like “The U.S. financial system is gaining stability.”

More recently, many people are using “woman” as an adjective – e.g., “This firm has a high percentage of woman portfolio managers.” Of course, “female” is the correct adjective. Even worse, some writers use “woman” and “female” interchangeably as adjectives in the same piece, without rhyme or reason. Double whammy.

2. Splitting infinitives

Teachers used to implore their students never to split infinitives. Then the TV show Star Trek talked of the mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” and the split infinitive lost its stigma. Other languages like French and Italian keep their infinitives as one word, so no worries about splitting those.

3. Ending a sentence with a preposition

Purists may cringe when people finish sentences with a preposition, but most anyone else won’t even blink at a sentence such as “That’s a big hole to climb out of.” Sometimes it’s just more pleasing to the ear than to say “That’s a big hole out of which to climb.”

4. Using the plural “their” in relation to singular nouns

Practicality was the impetus behind this morphing grammar rule, as it’s cumbersome to write – and worse to read – a sentence like “When an individual squanders his or her money, he or she will find that tough times will soon beset him or her.”

5. Using certain adjectives, instead of nouns, in a compound adjective

This one’s hard to explain but examples should help. While it’s grammatically correct to say “Canadian company” or “German scientist,” introducing a second preceding adjective changes the rules.

Although common, saying “a Canadian-based company” or “a German-born scientist” is wrong. The company is not “based in Canadian” and the scientist was not “born in German.” Correct usage is “Canada-based company” and “Germany-born scientist.” Not sure why people tend to do this with countries but not cities. For instance, you’ll see “Toronto-based writer” but never “Torontonian-based writer.”

Language can be so much fun!

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