Three grammar myths you need to banish from the classroom

Three rules – and no less – which you can ignore in the classroom

Mark Brenchley & Ian Cushing


Society is awash with myths about grammar and these can easily seep into schools. While our first column highlighted the importance of respecting non-standard English, it also emphasised students' right to Standard English. For that to happen, of course, we need to know what its characteristic forms are. Which makes the myths problematic.

So here are three of the major myths we need to tackle in schools.

1. When to use "that", not "which"

This somewhat minor myth covers two kinds of relative clause: restrictive and non-restrictive.

While the exact nature of the difference goes beyond our space limits, the two types can be distinguished relatively easily through their punctuation: restrictive relatives are essentially those written without a comma, indicating the clause supplies information critical to identifying the referent of the noun it modifies; non-restrictive relatives are those written with a comma, indicating the clause supplies supplementary information not critical to identifying the referent:

    (a) This is the rule that I hate [restrictive]

    (b) This is the rule, which I hate [non-restrictive]

Noting this distinction, some have claimed that you must choose "that" over "which" to begin a restrictive relative, and "which" over "that" to begin a non-restrictive relative.

In fact, while the use of "that" in non-restrictive relatives is marginal enough to be deemed ungrammatical for Standard English, it is entirely grammatical to use "which" for both kinds. In other words, you can absolutely say (c) and you can absolutely say (d). Standard English isn't especially fussed either way:

    (c) This is the rule, which I hate.

    (d) This is the rule which I hate.

2. If I was...

Myth #2 concerns what linguists call remote conditionals. These are sequences where an "if" clause frames a set of conditions regarding a world somehow "remote" from the one in which the speaker lives. Or, as Justin Bieber might have put it:

    (a) If I were your boyfriend, I'd never let you go.

Except that isn't how he put it. What he said was (b), sending your average stickler into roughly the same frenzy as your non-average Belieber:

    (b) If I was your boyfriend, I'd never let you go.

For sticklers, the "was" here is supposedly unforgivable: whenever you put a BE verb in the "if" clause, you must use "were", not "was. That is, what he should have done is used the subjunctive so beloved of a certain former education secretary.

In fact, whatever Bieber's demerits as a boyfriend, his Standard English here is faultless. True, the "were" form has a much more formal flavour that is worth appreciating, but there's nothing ungrammatical about using "was" in remote conditionals. Indeed, the two forms have been expressing essentially the same meaning for several hundred years now. In other words, you can absolutely say "If I was" and you can absolutely say "If I were": Standard English will have you either way.

3. Fewer, not less

Myth #3 covers the distinction between count and non-count nouns. Count nouns are nouns like "book" and "mistake"; non-count nouns are nouns like "furniture" and "rice". As you might guess, "count" nouns are ones that can be construed as countable, the "non-count" nouns not so much. Hence, I bought three books, but not I bought three furniture.

The myth here is that you must use "less" with non-count nouns and "fewer" with count nouns. In other words, it's ungrammatical to say such things as "fewer rice" and "less items".

That's only half right:

While non-count nouns are currently restricted to "less" in Standard English, it's entirely grammatical to use both "fewer" and "less" with count nouns. In other words, you can absolutely say "fewer items" and you can absolutely say "less items". That's just the way it is; and while it's sensible to highlight a general preference for using "fewer" in formal contexts, that's ultimately a matter of personal choice. Just go with the one that sounds right to you, and let your copy editor have at it as they will.

Of course, there are more myths than the above. So why highlight these?

What makes them especially instructive is that all three flag one overarching myth: that Standard English is somehow neater, more logical than its non-standard peers. That's just not so. As #2 shows, Standard English allows two forms to express basically the same meaning; and as #1 and #3 show, apparently complementary forms needn't have neatly complementary properties.

Indeed, look closely and you'll see untidiness everywhere. What's logical, for example, about randomly marking third person singular verbs? What's neat about "children" rather than "childs"?

There are reasons for these features, of course. But the assumption of neatness and logic doesn't come into it. And it's this assumption which is perhaps the biggest barrier to ensuring your students know what is and isn't established Standard English.

So, by all means, embrace Standard English, but never hesitate to first check that it's actually Standard English they're getting access to.

Ian Cushing is a teaching fellow in English linguistics at University College London and a doctoral researcher in applied linguistics at Aston University. Mark Brenchley is an associate research fellow at the Centre for Research in Writing at the University of Exeter. He works on the Growth in Grammar project, which is seeking to understand what grammatical development in student writing looks like

Recommended Reference Grammars

Quirk, R. et al. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Harlow: Longman Huddleston, R. & Pullum, G. (2002) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Suggested Further Reading Bauer, L. & Trudgill, P. (1998) Language Myths. London: Penguin Labov, W. (1972) 'The logic of nonstandard English'. In Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular (pp.201-240). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press Stubbs, M. (1986) 'What is Standard English?' In Educational Linguistics (pp.83-97). Oxford: Blackwell

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Mark Brenchley & Ian Cushing

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