The Double Space
In my ninth-grade English class, my teacher proclaimed herself to be a stickler for grammatical rules. One particular rule of hers that stands out to me even now — a decade later — is her insistence on a double space at the end of each sentence. I distinctly remember the way my good friend cried when her first essay was returned to her with a large red “D” at the top. While her essay was well-written, our teacher had deducted a point every single time she failed to follow this rule, which in her case meant a one-point deduction for each sentence.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that this “rule,” while widely enforced in high school and college classes, is not recognized by most experts. In reality, the “two spaces” rule is a relic of the days of typewriters, when the extra space was necessary to clearly indicate the beginning of each new sentence. But unlike typewriters, computers print proportionally (the amount of space allotted for each letter depends on its width) which makes the beginning of a new sentence obvious without a double space.
While some style guides (like APA) still require the double space, others (like MLA) require a single space; in this and many other instances, the enforcement of certain grammatical “rules” is entirely arbitrary. This lack of agreement on grammatical and stylistic norms is a common feature of the English language, making it incredibly difficult to navigate grammatical conventions.
The Split Infinitive
The “double space” mandate is far from the only “rule” that has been arbitrarily implemented, and many such grammatical conventions are openly dismissed by experts. For example, while in high school, I was also told never to never split my infinitives. However, the origin of this convention brings its validity into question. This “rule” first appears in grammar texts from the nineteenth century, and is thought to be reflective of the movement of the time, in which scholars sought to apply Latin grammatical rules to English. In Latin, infinitives cannot possibly be split because they are single words. Scholars thus extended this concept to English, arguing that “to” is part of the verb itself and thus should never be separated from the remainder of the verb. However, this line of reasoning ignores the simple fact that in English, “to” is its own word and can be plausibly (and easily) separated from its remainder, yielding new and exciting syntactical possibilities.
The Sentence-Ending Preposition
Another common “rule” that many students are taught to follow is to never end a sentence with a preposition. To those who insist on this rule, I ask: Where does that rule come from? Oddly enough, it seems that this rule originated in a single seventeenth-century essay by the poet John Dryden; what is unclear is how this grammatical myth became so persistent, despite grammarians’ centuries of attempts to debunk it.
In fact, experts have noted that sentence-ending prepositions have existed for as long as the English language has, and that “great literature from Chaucer to Milton to Shakespeare to the King James version of the Bible was full of so called terminal prepositions” (1). Furthermore, the use of sentence-ending prepositions is perfectly natural in spoken English, and incorporating this syntax into written language can help to make writing clearer and more accessible.
While these three “rules” may be some of the most commonly mistaught grammatical principles, they are far from the only ones. Despite what we are told in high school and beyond, the passive voice can be an effective choice and is often used to emphasize an outcome over an action. Contractions are perfectly acceptable in formal English, so don’t let traditionalists tell you otherwise. And it is perfectly acceptable to begin a sentence with a conjunction. Language is ultimately created by its users, and grammatical “rules” that conflict with our everyday language usage must be questioned.
So single space to your heart’s desire.
Seek to boldly split your infinitives.
And write in a way that is true to your voice, grammar sticklers be darned.
- Cutts, Martin (2009). Oxford Guide to Plain English (Third ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.