Monumental new English grammar helps debunk grammar 'rules'

If you've ever been cited for breaking traditional grammar rules you will rejoice at the publication of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Coauthor and University of California, Santa Cruz professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum hopes that among other things, The Cambridge Grammar will help debunk what he dubs "grammar myths" that have long plagued the world's most widely used language, such as:

Myth: You must never split an infinitive.

Pullum responds: Hemingway didn't write the phrase "to really live" by mistake; it is perfect English. "To" introduces infinitival verb phrases, and "really live" is an infinitival verb phrase (containing a preverbal adverb). Nothing is split in this form of words.

Myth: It's wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.

Pullum responds: Sure, if you're talking about classical Latin or standard French. But if we are talking about languages like modern English, then prepositions at ends of clauses have been normal for a thousand years.

Myth: "They" must never occur with a singular antecedent.

Pullum responds: "They" is standardly used with quantified noun phrase antecedents like "everyone," "no one," and "anybody." So sentences like "Nobody likes paying their taxes" are perfectly grammatical English, and this use has been common for hundreds of years.

Myth: The word "since" must be used only in the time-reference sense.

Pullum responds: No, both uses of "since" are well established. The phase "since Bush became president" has two meanings: (1) "between the time when Bush became president and now" (the temporal sense), and (2) "given that Bush did become president" (inferential). The inferential use was just fine for Will Shakespeare, is in constant use by everyone, and is often not ambiguous at all. By all means prevent needless ambiguity in serious writing if you can; but don't expect arbitrary banning of certain senses of words to do it for you.

Myth: Expressions like "It was me" and "She was taller than him" are incorrect; the correct forms are "It was I" and "She was taller than he."

Pullum responds: The forms with nominative pronouns sound ridiculously stuffy today. In present-day English, the copular verb takes accusative pronoun complements and so does "than." My advice would be this: If someone knocks at your door, and you say "Who's there?" and what you hear in response is "It is I," don't let them in. It's no one you want to know.

"People have been living in fear of grammar rules that don't exist," said Pullum, who wrote The Cambridge Grammar with Rodney Huddleston of the University of Queensland, Australia. "We're going into the 21st century carrying grammar books from the 20th century that haven't shaken off grammar myths from the 19th century," said Pullum.

Creating a truly modern grammar text took more than a decade of comprehensive and at times exhausting work by the coauthors and an international group of a dozen contributing linguists. Huddleston began the project in 1987 as a solo effort, and Pullum joined the team in 1995. When he learned of the undertaking, Pullum "thought it was too big a project, and it would kill us all."

Each of the book's 20 chapters was painstakingly researched, detailing the structure of words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and punctuation as actually used in English. "It was worth it for me because of how much I learned. I sometimes changed my mind over things I'd believed for 20 years," said Pullum. Controversial points were resolved through consensus--and sometimes scholarly struggle. "The expression 'That's good enough' doesn't exist for Rodney Huddleston," said Pullum. "If there was disagreement, we looked at the evidence and worked it out."

For several months prior to its publication, the sun never set on the draft of The Cambridge Grammar, as someone, somewhere in the world, was working on the new reference book. Main proofs were being checked in Australia while backup proofs were reviewed in California; editors were laboring in England and typesetters were working in India. Pullum traded five California summers for Australian winters to work with Huddleston in Queensland.

It isn't that Pullum and Huddleston expect to see The Cambridge Grammar on the desk of every student of English. At 1,842 pages, it's too heavy to be found in student backpacks. But they do hope it will become the standard reference for anyone writing or revising grammar texts that stock libraries and English classrooms across the grades and around the world. "Grammar books have got to be redesigned, the business of grammar has got to be updated, and The Cambridge Grammar provides a basis from which to start," said Pullum.