Do You Speak Correctly?

Speakers need to know what rules of grammar they have to follow
Speakers need to know what rules of grammar they have to follow Image Credit: the Italian voice

When we prepare to give a speech, we tend to worry about a number of different things. We worry about how we’ll look. We worry about the stage that we will be standing on. We worry about the microphone that we will be using. However, very rarely do we worry about the words that we’ll be using. Oh sure, we want to be able to speak clearly and have our audience understand us, but we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the actual words that we’ll be saying. Perhaps we should be.

Why Splitting Infinitives Is Not Bad

I’m pretty sure that we are all aware of things that no speaker should ever say. These are rules that we probably learned all the way back in elementary school about how to construct sentences. However, it turns out that what we learned may no longer be true today. Do you know that infinitives can be split, prepositions can end sentences, and “and” can indeed begin sentences?

Starting with the first of these revelations, splitting an infinitive is largely heralded as a grammatical error. If you remember, an infinitive is the word “to” plus the simple form of a verb, e.g., to run, to ask, to go. A split infinitive occurs when an adverb splits the to and the simple form of the verb, e.g., to quickly run, to politely ask, and the most famous split infinitive of all time, thanks to the TV show Star Trek: to boldly go (where no man has gone before). If you take a look at the Oxford Dictionaries’ website, split infinitives aren’t a future phenomenon: “People have been splitting infinitives for centuries.”

This of course brings up the question, why have split infinitives received such a bad reputation? This is not clear – even the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage don’t know. According to their website, “there has never been a rational basis for objecting to the split infinitive.” Authors go so far as to promote split infinitives “to avoid awkward wording, to preserve a natural rhythm, and especially to achieve the intended emphasis and meaning.” What all this this means for speakers is that we have been given permission to split them! Note that if splitting an infinitive is incorrectly deemed the king of all grammatical errors, then ending a sentence with a preposition is probably its queen.

The Problem With Prepositions

Thinking back to elementary school, we can all remember that a preposition is a word that expresses temporal or spatial relationships. Common prepositions that we use include words such as to, at, for, on, off, with, above and below. It’s may not always be correct to end a sentence with a preposition, but it’s certainly not always wrong either. Even famous people have done this. A good example is this Winston Churchill quote which illustrates how awkward it sounds when we try to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition at all costs: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” However, even Churchill would be correct to not to put up with the sentence “Where are you going to?” simply because here the to is unnecessary. In this case, “Where are you going?” adequately conveys the meaning. Speakers need to realize that basically, if the preposition is gratuitous, then leave it off.

And lastly, was it wrong to begin this sentence with the word “and”? Some will argue that the words “and” and “but” should not start sentences, because they are connecting words (conjunctions), which are meant to link rather than begin thoughts. However, currently the consensus among grammarians is to follow the same approach as when eating cookies: it’s okay to do, but for best results, you need to exhibit self-control. Starting a sentence with “and” or “but” can create a dramatic effect or convey a less rigid tone but overdoing it can make your speech sound choppy and too informal.

What All Of This Means For You

Speakers may become excited when they discover that it is grammatically acceptable to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions and begin sentences with “and” and “but”. But as with all such things in life, there’s a catch. Many people still haven’t learned that these grammar practices are okay. Consequently, it’s probably a good idea for you to curb these practices – unless they are necessary for clarity and flow. However, in the meantime, speakers should feel free to boldly spread the word.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: How many split-infinitives do you think that you can use in a single speech?

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Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

So just exactly why do you go to the effort of giving speeches? It may be because you truly enjoy hearing yourself speak; however, I’m going to guess that the real answer is that you want to convince your audience to take action. You want your words to reach out to them and convince them that once you are done, they need to stand up and go do something that you convinced them needed to be done. Knowing that this is the effect that you want to have is one thing, getting people to do it is something else…