I'm a language nerd, I admit it. It's my job to use the English language properly and well. Plus, by nature, I'm the type who gets a little itchy when I see ‘its’ where there should be ‘it's’ or ‘your’ in the place of ‘you're’. But even a stickler like me can admit, some folks just take the grammar pedantry too far.

The internet is full of articles warning of common language errors that will make you look an idiot, a fool, or an unpromotable incompetent. Believe them all and the only thing you're likely to get done at work is lots and lots of excessive proofreading. In fact, according to a refreshing recent Quartz article by Oxford University professor William MacAskill and his partner, PhD philosophy student Amanda MacAskill, lots of common “mistakes” language snobs like to lord over the common man aren't even mistakes at all, including these:

1. Starting a sentence with a conjunction

Didn't some cranky English teacher somewhere once tell you that starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ was a major sin? Well, if so, forget the wisdom of old Mr. or Mrs. Language Snob and start writing like a normal human being already.

“Some of us were taught that this is not good English. But there's nothing ungrammatical about starting a sentence with a conjunction. And, in our opinion, it makes your writing look great. If you don't do it too often. But we don't do it too often. So it's fine,” write the MacAskills, demonstrating their own happily cavalier use of initial conjunctions.

2. Ending a sentence with a preposition

This is another one that makes the grammar fuddy duddies go insane, but as the MacAskills note, you can safely ignore them on this issue as well: “Prepositions are words like on, in, to, at, and with. In Latin, it's totally not okay to end a sentence with a preposition. But now that Rome has fallen and barbarian languages like English have taken over, we can flout the rules of Latin as much as we like.”

3. Singular they

These days it's pretty roundly regarded as sexist to routinely refer to an unnamed boss, doctor, or friend as ‘he’, but on the other hand the admirably inclusive ‘he or she’ doesn't exactly make for smooth and readable copy. That's why so many of us revert to ‘they’ to avoid the whole issue. But isn't using the plural ‘they’ to refer to a single person a completely embarrassing grammar faux pas?

Not all all, insist the MacAskills. “Using the singular they is now widely accepted and, according to the OED blog, using plural pronouns to refer to singular subjects is a practice that dates back to the 16th century,” they note.

Professional writers might not be able to get away with this one with all editors and for all audiences (and anyway, it's their job to find ways around the trouble), but for your average email or work memo, go ahead and write “Tell your friend they can call me,” when you don't know the gender of the friend.

These three “errors” only scratch the surface of the article, which covers other common bugbears of language pedants, including further vs. farther, nauseated vs. nauseous, and the so-called misuse of literally. Read it in full if you want writing normal, modern English to be less of an anxiety-inducing minefield.

Published on: Aug 6, 2015