The other day, I got in the “10 Items or Fewer” line at my local Trader Joe’s market. The sign said “fewer” and not the more often seen “less.” That’s not a problem, but they didn’t have to change it, according to noted linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. (See the article cited in a previous post about rules of English you can break.) This British comedian agrees:
You’ll need some time to read about of few of these rules in this article by Steven Pinker, a linguist who has written several books about language. (His first such book, “The Language Instinct,” is also a long—but humorous—read.)
Many of these so-called grammar rules,* says Pinker, “originated for screwball reasons.” Here’s a few of the issues he comments on:
- Dangling modifiers – Watch out for them, though not all of them have to be fixed.
- Like, as, such as – It’s about how formal you want to be.
- Split infinitives – It’s OK to split them, and sometimes it’s better for adverb placement.
- Who and whom – “Whom” is declining in use, but it’s a natural choice in some instances, and again, how formal do you want to be?
- Very unique – This one is best to avoid, but with other constructions, says Pinker, “great writers have been modifying absolute adjectives for centuries.”
*These “grammar rules” have also been called zombie rules, but Pinker doesn’t use the term.
Watch this quick lesson from TED-Ed.