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Splittists

It just will not die. It has been shot down, demolished, exploded and buried at a crossroads with a stake through its heart. It should be as dead as Marley, but it keeps coming back.

It is the baseless prohibition against the split infinitive. Theodore Bernstein said hopefully in Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins (1971) that “within the near future the split-infinitive bugaboo will be finally laid to rest.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes the resistance to the construction as having “established itself in that subculture existing in the popular press and in folk belief.” Garner’s Modern American Usage includes the split infinitive in the entry Superstitions. John Bremner wrote in 1980, “This so-called rule has no foundation in grammar, logic, rhetoric or common sense.” *

Just so. The split infinitive is the thing that many people think about when they think about grammar, even if they are not entirely sure what an infinitive is. “Oh, you’re a copy editor — better watch out and not split any infinitives talking to you, ha-ha.”

In fact, the only reason to avoid splitting infinitives is to escape the uninformed censure of people who think that it is a violation of grammar and usage. Merriam-Webster’s: “The commentators recognize that there is nothing grammatically wrong with the split infinitive, but they are loath to abandon a subject that is so dear to the public at large. Therefore, they tell us to avoid split infinitives except when splitting one improves clarity. Since improved clarity is very often the purpose and result of using a split infinitive, the advice does not amount to much. The upshot is that you can split them when you need to.”

Let me emphasize this Merriam-Webster’s conclusion: “To repeat, the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis.”

I bring this up because Professor Geoffrey Pullum has brought his artillery to bear on a blog, Punctuality Rules, that made some heavy going trying to sort out advice on the split infinitive from Strunk and White — a volume that Professor Pullum and the other Language Log savants particularly despise.**

An examination of E.B. White’s efforts with the split infinitive shows that he is trying to work himself out of the predicament that Merriam-Webster’s describes. He can see perfectly well that splitting infinitives is perfectly natural and appropriate in English, but he is aware of the finger-waggers ready to spring forward. His advice, therefore, is of little use.

I empathize with Professor Pullum’s irritation with people who carry on about Strunk and White, treating it as more a totem than a usage manual. And I have some sympathy for Deb Boyken, the blogger at Punctuality Rules, for having innocently engaged his attention. Her response to his post sounds hurt. At the same time, it’s irritating to see people rushing to her defense with comments calling Geoffrey Pullum a mean man.

Blogging is publication; it’s not circulating the annual Christmas letter among family and friends. It is a public performance, and people who perform in public leave themselves open to evaluation. Heat and kitchens and all that.

Just leave the split infinitive alone and wait for another couple of generations to die.

 

*In my own humble efforts, I’ve addressed the issue here and here.

 **I have a sentimental attachment to Strunk and White dating from my first encounter with it as a senior in high school, but I no longer consult it as a usage manual.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:54 PM | | Comments (9)
        

Comments

Enough, already, about the split infinitive!It still looks and sounds awkward to me, and combined with the dearth of anything approaching good grammar in television and radio news, it's simply another irritant to grate on ear and eye. The adverb is a moveable feast and can wander where it will, to a point. If people wish to keep infinitives united, let them. I beg always to remain, etc etc....

Thanks for the mention. My main objection to Geoffrey Pullum's blog post was that he took a minor line in a book review and used it as a springboard for his post--which wasn't one that disagreed with my review, but which nitpicked at a single clause. Had he critiqued my actual post on split infinitives (here: http://punctualityrules.com/2008/01/21/mm-split-infinitive/) it would have been fair game. I'm well aware that the internet is one, big, open forum where criticism is inevitable, but that seemed unfair--as was his post having closed comments so I couldn't reply.

Anyway, it's all water under the bridge. Moving on, now!

(Oh, and I love Patricia's line about the adverb being a movable feast ... delicious.)

"Hurt" isn't the word I would use to describe her response. She was sloppy and didn't check her facts. She was called on this. She responded with an explanation of how she is too well read to be expected to bother with such trivia. There are words to describe this reaction, but "hurt" isn't one of them.

even if they are not entirely sure what an infinitive is

At InformationWeek, I ran into the misplaced "also" or "only" a lot more than I'd seen it elsewhere.

You know: "The company also will release..."

I finally asked someone, why did he keep doing it?? Because it was so stupid sounding.

"Because you're not supposed to split the infinitive," he said.

Ummmm, that's not an infinitive.

Patricia the Terse wrote:

"The adverb is a moveable feast and can wander where it will, to a point."

John McIntyre wrote:

"Two pieces of advice:

"1. Visualize what a depiction of your metaphor would look like. Is that what you want?

"2. Get yourself an editor — or someone you trust to be both knowledgeable and honest — to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Follow the advice."

If a participle can dangle - although it shouldn't - and nouns can oppose one another - which they often do - an adverb can wander. I stand by my metaphor.

Grammar is not about logic it is about courtesy. If people are offended then the usage is offensive. I agree the rule is a nuisance. To ignore it is not wrong, but it is rude, if your readers care.

"Grammar is not about logic it is about courtesy. If people are offended then the usage is offensive. I agree the rule is a nuisance. To ignore it is not wrong, but it is rude, if your readers care."

If we take this advice, then we must accede to the lowest ignorance. This is not a game that can be won, or even tied. There are always people out there looking for some reason to be offended. Their ability to find reason for offense should not be underestimated.

"If a participle can dangle - although it shouldn't - and nouns can oppose one another - which they often do - an adverb can wander. I stand by my metaphor."

I have a mental image of a table loaded with food walking around aimlessly.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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