The squishy area between bad grammar and good writing.

Someone dangled this shiny thing in front of my nose today: 7 bogus grammar “errors” you don’t need to worry about.

This is sensible advice for those who (for example) hang out with crazed grammar pedants who actually think the passive voice has no place in respectable writing. I mean, I’m a psychotic prescriptivist, but I don’t understand how otherwise healthy adults can get in screaming matches over possessive pronouns. If you’re forced into frequent contact with people who do not recognize the boundary between formal and colloquial, then this sort of article should be a comfort. Whereas if you are one of those people engaged in screaming matches over possession, you probably won’t be impressed.

All that said, I would like to attach a caveat to Mr. Yagoda’s sensible advice: there is a large gray area between “bad grammar” and what we usually identify as “good writing.” It is possible to write badly without mangling the English language. Most of the items on Yagoda’s list fall into that gray area.

Sometimes, a sentence demands a split infinitive or else it looks ridiculous. Most times, however, the adverb can be placed outside of the infinitive and the sentence flows much better. If you’re writing dialogue, a split infinitive is what seems most natural. If you’re writing narrative or persuasive prose, try to keep the infinitives intact.

The issue of sentences that end in prepositions is even more fraught. The difference between English and Latin is phrasal verbs. Ask for, hear of, settle down on, and put up with are all phrasal verbs, and using them often results in sentences that end with prepositions. In casual speech, you’re not going to plan out the sentence in your head so that all the small, weak words are politely tucked into the middle of the sentence. When you’re writing formal prose, go for the “to whom” and “to which” constructions. Sentences look better if they end with words that convey ideas in their own right.

My favorite item on the list is surely the one about using the passive voice. There have been times when someone told me the passive voice is bad writing, and I quickly decided against accepting writing advice from said individuals. We wouldn’t have developed the passive voice if we didn’t sometimes need to use it. Sometimes, we need to talk about something that happened when we don’t know who was responsible. On those occasions, the passive voice is not just acceptable but essential. When it is possible to write in the active voice without twisting the sentences into pretzel shapes, use the active voice. When the person who made the thing happen is unknown, use the passive voice and don’t apologize.