This morning I had the delightful “I was right all along!” experience of learning that the one grammatical bugaboo in my life is probably bogus. The next time a copy-editor invokes it on me I shall gleefully kick him or her in the snout…
I am an exceptionally skilled grammarian in English. Only rarely do I make even spelling errors, and my syntax and usage are normally impeccable. This is not to say that I follow every remonstrance in the strictest style guides – there are some rules which I regard as empty scholasticism imposed on the language by compulsive Latinists and view with contempt, such as those against splitting infinitives or putting a preposition at the end of a sentence. I am also quite willing to deliberately violate strict canons of usage for stylistic effect. That said, copy editors working on my stuff usually find that about all they have to do is fix typos; I give them almost nothing to complain about. In fact I am rather more likely to correct their grammar than they are to correct mine.
However, there is one exception that has been irritating me for years – the only usage rule of “correct” English I routinely get gigged with. It’s the rule for whether to use “that” or “which” heading a demonstrative phrase. I use the two more or less interchangeably. I didn’t internalize any real distinction between them as a child and have not succeeded in learning one as an adult – I’ve had two editors try to explain the “restrictive” vs. “nonrestrictive” distinction to me and give up.
But now I learn that this rule is probably bogus!. That is, it was proposed in one influential style guide (Fowler’s “The King’s English”) without historical foundation, and no less an author than Mark Twain has been cited as a counterexample.
I feel quite empowered by this revelation; I’ll choose Twain’s fluid, expressive Americanism over British stuffiness any day of the week. (It is not unlikely that my native writing style was significantly shaped by early exposure to him.) Take that rule and shove it!