A reader might be impacted by what follows if they find much to heartily disagree with.

My dad — an ardent believer in the “King’s English,” on which his education was based — would have had a fit reading the above klutzy sentence, finding fault with at least four usages.

Split infinitives

The objection to splitting infinitives (…to heartily disagree…) is, according to linguist John McWhorter, “a nineteenth-century fetish.” (I’ve leaned heavily on his book “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” for this column.) This “rule” has no logical foundation—unless you go back to Latin, whose one-word infinitives are sensibly unsplittable. Me, I’m going to boldly ignore it.

Singular-plural commingling

How can the plural forms “they” and “their” relate to a singular “reader”. Actually, these face-value plurals have cohabited happily with their singular antecedents for centuries, helping writers avoid such kludges as “his or hers,” “one’s,” “he or she,” or the dreadful “s/he.” From “Iche mon in thayre degree” = “Each man in their degree” (Sir Amadace, 14th century) to “A person can’t help their birth” (Vanity Fair, 1840’s), this particular usage has plenty of precedents. If a wordsmith like William Makepeace Thackeray had penned such circumlocutions as, “A person can’t help his or her birth,” we might have thought less of him.

(Similarly, you wouldn’t say, “Amn’t I in charge here?”, but “Aren’t I in charge here?”, conflating singular and plural—although there are exceptions, like in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, where Cissy Caffrey asks, “Amn’t I with you? Amn’t I your girl?”)

End-of-sentence prepositions

Ending a sentence with a preposition (…disagree with.) has been a no-no for several hundred years. The story goes that when a secretary thought he (s/he?) was improving upon one of Winston Churchill’s wartime memos by eliminating such an “error,” the old bulldog wrote in the margin of the corrected copy, “This is arrant pedantry, up with which I will not put.”

All of us, it’s safe to say, talk end-of-sentence prepositions (Who were you speaking to?), and I doubt the sky will fall if we write them.


Grammarians have long taken issue with turning nouns into verbs willy-nilly (…might be impacted…). Yet verbs such as view, copy, outlaw, silence and worship were once only nouns. For a modern example, how long did it take, after the noun facsimile was shortened to fax, for it to be verbified (I’ll fax you the proposal)? Does anyone think twice nowadays about emailing, texting, or (shudder) friending?


Sorry Dad, I know how important it was to you that people speak and write properly. You thought language was degrading to the point where we’d all end up communicating in grunts. But, somehow, the world’s six-thousand-odd languages have survived the relentless assaults of far uglier “lapses” than those I’ve alluded to (to which I have alluded?), and they’re no worse off for it.

Still, I will never ask for who the bell tolls.


Barry Evans gave the best years of his life to civil engineering, and what thanks did he get? In his dotage, he travels, kayaks, meditates and writes for the Journal and the Humboldt Historian. He sucks at 8 Ball. Buy his Field Notes anthologies at any local bookstore. Please.