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This episode of misconceptions debunks some common mistaken ideas about the English language. Prescriptivists will literally go insane as Elliott Morgan discusses some of the rules of the English language that may not be as cut and dried as you imagine.

Misconceptions is a weekly show where we debunk common misconceptions. This week, Elliott discusses some misconceptions about English!

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Elliott: Hi I'm Elliot, and this is mental_floss on YouTube. Today I'm going to tell you some misconceptions about the English language and grammar. Keep in mind that a lot of people live by these rules, which is totally cool. The moral of this episode is that even grammar experts disagree on some of this stuff. So it's just kind of fun to talk about. 

(Intro Music)

Elliott: Misconception number one: Never begin a sentence with a conjunction, like "but." I'm going to go ahead and quote directly from The Chicago Manual of Style on this one. "There is a widespread belief-one with no historical or grammatical foundation- that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as 'and', 'but', or 'so'. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice."

Misconception number two: Paragraphs must be a certain number of sentences. You've heard that in order for a paragraph to be a paragraph, it must have a certain minimum number of sentences like three or five. But a paragraph really only needs at least one sentence and one main idea. In fact a paragraph can just be a single sentence, like the ones you often see in books and newspapers. According to Martin Cutts in The Oxford Guide to Plain English, "If you can say what you want to say in a single sentence that lacks a direct connection with any other sentence just stop there and go on to a new paragraph. There's no rule against it." Go crazy guys.

Misconception number three: There's a clear rule for where to put the apostrophe in a possessive singular noun ending in the letter "s". So let's say you're trying to write out the boss's report. Do you spell boss "boss's" or "boss'"? Well, experts disagree on which is correct. If you're writing an Associated Press style, you should go with the second one. But other style books recommend the extra "s" after the apostrophe. You pretty much get to choose as long as you stay consistent.

Misconception number four: Don't end a sentence with a preposition. According to Fowler's Modern English Usage, "One of the most persistent myths about prepositions in English is that they properly belong before the word or words they govern and should not be placed at the end of a clause or sentence." This rule was invented in the 17th century, but modern grammar experts acknowledge that sometimes a sentence is clearest with a preposition at the end of it. For example, "You should cheer up" and "You've been lied to." You haven't been, but that's the sentence.

Misconception number five: Don't split infinitives. In English an infinitive is usually the form of a verb starting with "to," like "to walk" or "to eat." Some believe that it's wrong to stick a word in between the two and the verb itself, like "to quickly eat." This rule became widespread thanks to Henry Alford, a 19th century scholar who decided splitting infinitives was "entirely unknown" to English speakers, ignoring the fact that even Shakespeare was known to split an infinitive. Nowadays most grammar guides will tell you to avoid doing this when possible, but there are times when it's okay. For example the famous Star Trek line, "To boldly go where no man has gone before." 

Misconception number six: "Caesarian sections" are named after Julius Caesar. Actually Caesar wasn't the first person born via C-Section as the story goes, and many experts claim that he wasn't even born that way because back then c-sections were only performed if the mother had died during childbirth, and we know that his mother lived for years after his birth. Pliny said that it was actually one of Julius's ancestors that was born this way, giving the family it's name after the Latin "-Cato" meaning "To cut." It's also possible that the Caesars were named for another feature typically associated with that name, like a thick head of hair or gray eyes. 

Misconception number seven: You are not "good," you are "well." You're actually allowed to answer "How are you?" with either "I'm good," or "I'm well." That's because "am" is what's known as a linking verb, which means it should be followed by an adjective. Both good and well can act as adjectives after a linking verb. Mic drop. 

Misconception number eight: Only use "whose" to refer to people. Many people will tell you that you should only use "whose" when you're talking about people not things. But this one, we don't need to look any further than the Oxford English Dictionary which claims that "whose" has been used in the possessive form of both "what" and "who" for centuries. So it's totally okay for me to say that this is a show whose host is named Elliott. That's me. 

Misconception number nine: "Literally" can never mean "figuratively." This might be the most controversial one on the list, so I'm going to start with a quote from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald- "But there was a change in Gatsby that was simply confounding. He literally glowed." There's also a nice quote from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain- "Tom was literally rolling in wealth." Which knowing Tom Sawyer, that could've been literally true. My point is that you can't blame teenagers for misusing the word "literally." Authors have been using the word "literally" to mean "figuratively" for a very long time. Literally. Nowadays, the Merriam-Webster dictionary lists two definitions for the word: one "in a literal sense or manner," and two, "in affect."

Misconception number ten: "Decimate" means "to kill one in ten." A lot of people will scold you for using "decimate" to mean "destroy." They claim that the word's original definition was "to kill one in ten," so that's what it means. It turns out, when the word emerged in the mid- 17th century it meant both "to put to death or destroy one of every ten" and "to tithe." Etymologists don't know which meaning came first, so the original definition argument isn't a good one. Plus the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of "decimate" includes "to reduce drastically, especially in number," alongside the two original meanings. 

Thank you so much for watching Misconceptions on mental_floss on YouTube, which is made with the help of all these nice people. If you have a topic for an upcoming Misconceptions episode that you would like to see, just leave it in the comments and we'll take a look at them. I'll see you next week, bye.

(Outro Music)