The Study Dude – Is Grandma’s Grammar Better than the Dude’s?

Study Tips from a Semi-Anonymous Friend

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to split your infinitives wisely.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s Study Dude helps you gain insight into the grammar debates. Steven Pinker, in his book Sense of Style, grapples with grammar to make sense of tense, conditionals, and split infinitives. Sometimes breaking the rules makes sense, even if Grandma says otherwise.

Touching Up the Iffy Stuff: Conditionals
Years ago, at an office meeting, I piped up, “If I were…” and finished the sentence with something I no longer recall. One Ph.D student at the meeting was incensed, and he said, “If I was?It’s was not were.” I responded that the phrase “If I were” was okay when speaking hypothetically. He grumbled. All the post docs remained silent. Later, he approached me?me, a meagre Masters student?and said he learned something from me. My ego bloated, but soon deflated. I didn’t understand conditionals, and I knew it.

On one hand, I correctly thought it reasonable to say, “If I were a billionaire for a day, I would keep doing what I do right now.” Very hypothetical—and yes, if I were a billionaire, not much would change.

On the other hand, I once heard the 80s musician Phil Collins’s song where he sings, “If I was… .” And Phil Collins strikes me as a bona fide genius—maybe even a latent linguist—so I thought he must know something about grammar. Given my high faith in Phil Collins’ grammar, my low faith in my understanding of conditionals deepened.

At last, Steven Pinker demystifies doubts about conditionals:
– There are two key kinds of conditionals: open conditionals and remote conditionals.
Open conditionals come into play when the writer is not sure about the situation and the reader is left to guess the outcome. An open conditional would sound like this: “If my loved ones arrive from Mexico before midnight, I will be able to visit them before they venture off to Vegas.” In that example, there is a possibility that the loved ones might arrive before midnight. A trick to recognize open conditionals: they use present tense in the if-part and present-tense auxiliaries such as will, can, shall, and may in the then-part.
Remote conditionals come into play when the situation seems like a fairy tale, too good to be true, or extremely unlikely to happen. A remote conditional looks like this: “If I were a robotics specialist, I would advance the idea that robots have consciousness and, therefore, deserve basic human rights.” I’m anything but a robotics specialist?so very unlikely. A trick to recognizing remote conditionals is as follows: “The formula is that the if-clause must have a past tense verb, and then then-clause must contain would or a similar auxiliary such as could, should, or might” (p. 214). [Could, should, or might are in the past tense; can, shall, or may are in the present tense?go figure. If an auxiliary ends with a d or a t, then you know the auxiliary is in past tense.]
– Instead of saying, “If he would have smiled…,” tighten it to, “If he had smiled.” The tightened version sounds better.
– If you are using a hypothetical or counterfactual conditional, then use were, even with pronouns such as I and he?as in, “If I were a billionaire… .” Using were provides a more formal voice, such as the one you want in writing your essays. Using was, as in “If I was a billionaire” is more informal. [So, Phil Collins wrote his song to you as an informal friend, not as a professor.]

Stick with the Past or Stick with the Present: Tenses (and Voice)
I seek to consolidate voice in these articles. One minute I speak about me. Another, I speak about you. To unsettle things further, I also speak of him, her, or them. Although I hope to stumble on a stylebook that spells out how to mix voice, for now, you are stuck with me and you. Pinker sheds some light on voice, but not enough to settle the uncertainty.

I also seek to stick with the right tense. If one sentence in a paragraph sticks with present tense, all sentences in that paragraph should. All of the following tenses form the past: the past perfect (for example, I had laughed), past progressive (for example, I was laughing), and simple past (for example, I laughed). And to make a present tense paragraph, just change had to have (for example, I have laughed), was to am (for example, I am laughing), and use the simple present (I laugh). And just stick to the tense of choice: present or past (or future). Tense can’t get any easier than this.

Or could it? Well, tense can cause you some tension or tense can be a breeze, depending on which path you take, according to Pinker:
– To make tense a breeze, you could just use the simple present or simple past for all of your sentences. In other words, lop off words like have/had, are/were, and just stick with the basic verb. Some style guides even advocate for you to use the simple tense as much as possible: simple tense is cleaner and less wordy.
– If your sentence contains a past-tense verb, then make all of your verbs past-tense in that sentence. Similarly, stick to present-tense in a sentence if one or more of your verbs are in the present-tense.
– In the sentence, stick with the voice you are using. If you are using the voice of either first person (I, we), second person (you), or third person (he, she, it, they), stick with that particular voice. [The Study Dude commits this sin regularly, jumping from “you” to “me” to “them.”]
– Stick with either only active voice or only passive voice in your sentences. don’t say something like, “I learned the rule of threes from a journalist when his book was given to me.” Instead say, “I learned the rule of threes from a journalist when he gave me his book.” [As an aside, the rule of threes involves using three and only three pieces of evidence to support a claim: one a fact, one an expert or authority quote, and one an experience.]
– don’t mix up indirect quotes with direct quotes in a sentence. don’t say, “Tommy said, ?Eat protein within ninety minutes of weightlifting? and that protein powder gives him gas.” Instead, use either both direct quotes or both indirect quotes, as in, “?Eat protein within ninety minutes of weightlifting,? Tommy said. ?But eat it sparingly. Protein powder gives you gas.?”
– Journalists should use the past tense.
– When a situation you speak about is true for all time, you can go ahead and use present tense–even if the rest of the sentence is written in past tense: “The supervisor instructed that with processing, molten sand turns into glass.”
– When you report on what someone said in past tense, It’s okay to slip into present tense to slide in an aside. For instance, you could say, “A singer said that his vocal coach?a famous French female vocalist?warned him that further singing lessons would corrupt his perfect pitch.”

To Be or To Not Be: Split Infinitives
An infinitive is a verb that has to in front of it, such as to eat or to go. We all heard the rule never to split an infinitive. So, don’t place an adverb between to and go as in to boldly go. But, hey, Star Trek does it! And Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, like Phil Collins, is surely a bona fide genius?maybe even a latent linguist. Yet, every schoolmarm shudders at the sight of a split infinitive. So, if you do as Gene Roddenberry does and split your infinitives, will your professor slash her wrist and mark-up your paper in red?


If you really want to be what Pinker calls a prig or prissy, then follow the old rule for infinitives: never split an infinitive (such as to eat or to go) and never split verbs (such as am eating or had gone). But, if you want to make your sentences clear, sometimes you must break the rules. Pinker lays out when to split and when not to split an infinitive:
– When you might choose to split an infinitive with a big adverb or a groups of adverbs, don’t do it. For instance, don’t write “He liked to superstitiously think of giant grasshoppers as the sign of doomsday.” Instead, put the adverb at the end, as in, “He liked to think superstitiously… .”
– If the verb has an object, put the adverb or groups of adverbs after the object, typically at the end of the sentence. For instance, do write, “We learned how to read Ayn Rand voraciously,” instead of, “We learned how to voraciously read Ayn Rand.”
– Most often, an important adverb should come at the end of the sentence.
– Words like only, not, never, even, and so forth fit nicely just before the infinitive. For instance, “We try never to eat raw squid while It’s squirming on the plate.”
– Sometimes, a sentence only makes sense if you split the infinitive. For instance, when you write, “I’m moving to France to not get fat,” you sound clearer than if you said, “I’m moving to France not to get fat” (P. 229).
– Another case where you might be wise to split an infinitive occurs when you don’t know to what part of the sentence the adverb refers. For instance, saying, “The board voted immediately to approve the casino,” the reader is not sure whether the immediacy was on the voting or on approving the casino. You might have to split the infinitive if you mean to say, “The board voted to immediately approve the casino.”

When in doubt, don’t split the infinitive. Saying, “We love to read the Study Dude weekly” will surely get you an A on your next paper. Just say the Study Dude told you so.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

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