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Stop it; just stop it

One of our newer copy editors wonders about verbs, asking which is “more correct”:

Although they are probably second-guessing ... Although they probably are second-guessing ... I think "are probably" (and thus "are also," etc) is the better form, but it keeps getting changed when I flop it.

Score one for the tyro.* The former example is perfectly correct, and anyone who changes it to the latter is (a) mistaken and (b) wasting valuable time.

In idiomatic English, adverbs have typically fallen between the main verb and the auxiliary for centuries. Some authorities have mistakenly warned against “split verbs,” on the analogy with split infinitives. Of course, reputable authorities have repeatedly exploded the split infinitive superstition, and they have similarly dealt with the compound verb issue.

There you have it: Three sentences with four examples of splitting a compound verb in exactly the way that a native English speaker not corrupted by newspaper journalism would write or say.

From Theodore Bernstein’s Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Usage (1971): “There is no rule in English that forbids separating the parts of a compound verb. Indeed, more often than not, the natural position for an adverb is just ahead of the main verb it modifies.” His example is “a plan that has been gradually evolving.”

From John Bremner’s Words on Words: A Dictionary for Writers and Others Who Care About Words (1980): “Splitting an infinitive should not be confused with splitting the parts of a compound verb, as in “I have often walked down this street before.” Those who would ban splitting a compound verb are even more antediluvian than the antisplitinfinitive troglodytes.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003) includes “Never Split a Verb Phrase” as a sub-entry under the heading “SUPERSTITIONS” and quotes three other authorities, including Eric Partridge’s remark, “There is, however, a tendency to move an adverb from its rightful and natural position for inadequate reasons.”

I have been campaigning against this nonsensical warping of English at The Sun and in newsrooms around the country for more than a decade. Like General Grant, I propose to fight out on this line for as long as it takes.


* Tyro, novice, beginner, from the Latin (natch) tiro, or young soldier, recruit.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)


I fought this fight for years at my last paper, but there were just too many "unsplitters" and too few of me. Believe it or not, it was a factor in my decision to leave the job. In the slot, I would repair the damage done by the unsplitters, but then they would sneak back into the copy and restore their damage. I did not have the authority or managerial support to stop this idiocy -- there were unsplitters above me in the chain of command who would not listen to reason.

Here's an actual example of damage done by an unsplitter. The sentence arrived like this:

- The problem of dwindling marinas has been particularly hard on offshore fishermen.

It was changed to:

- The problem of dwindling marinas particularly has been hard on offshore fishermen.

(Yes, the "unplitting" cancer had even metastasized into a daffy belief that adverbs should be torn away from their rightful place next to predicate adjectives that they were modifying.)

"Unsplitting" often introduces squinting modifiers and, as shown in that example, can actually change the apparent meaning of the sentence, which is -- or at least used to be -- a cardinal sin of editing.

Here's another fine example of the editorial illiteracy in question. At that same newspaper, this correction was actually "fixed" into this condition, painfully reflecting a manager's warped perception of "proper grammar":

- Carson Drive incorrectly was described in Wednesday’s Pasco Tribune. Carson is a paved road.

... So is it any wonder that copy editors in general are regarded as expendable when newsroom budgets get tight?

This is one of my pet peeves when copy editors do it.

When I worked at a trade publication, news editors were always submitting text with this error, usually when they were using the word "also."

The company also will release....

I asked them why, and they said, "you can't split the infinitive."


It's not an infinitive, and as Words Into Type says on page 386:
"When an adverb is placed within a verb it should regularly follow the first auxiliary, not precede it."

I throw that phrase at them, complete w/ jargon: "the adverb follows the first auxiliary." Jargon usually shuts them up.

Continue to fight the good fight.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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