Last month I wrote about the unhappy consequences of avoiding split infinitives – a silly superstition that leads writers and editors who believe in it to sometimes make a mush of otherwise lucid prose. Calling the rule a fossilised, misbegotten bogeyman of writing style, I catalogued many examples from books where split-infinitive avoidance creates unnecessary ambiguity or awkwardness.
For example: “songbirds lose the ability fully to supplement what was not acquired”, in Terrence Deacon’s Symbolic Species, may mislead: there’s a difference between fully losing an ability to supplement, and losing an ability to fully supplement. In a comment, Jonathon Owen said of another example (“Adequately to judge this girl”) that it “doesn’t even sound like real English anymore; it sounds like Yoda.”
At Lingua Franca today, Geoffrey Pullum criticises a similar example he saw in the Economist: “a bill that would force any NGO receiving cash from abroad publicly to label itself a ‘foreign agent'”. The ambiguity is, in Pullum’s words, unfortunate and unnecessary. Unnecessary from the point of view of grammar, style and common sense, that is, but necessary if the Economist‘s style guide is to be obeyed:
Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.
Lane Greene, who writes insightfully about language for the Economist and elsewhere, dislikes the rule but defends it in the context of journalism: “diverting readers with our style risks distracting them from our reporting and analysis”. I see where he’s coming from, but who’s to say the peevers’ distraction at sanely split infinitives outweighs the distraction of ordinary readers who flinch at the avoidable problems Pullum details?
Jonathon Owen, at Arrant Pedantry, puts the choice thus: “will you please the small but vocal peevers, or the more numerous reasonable people?” Some of the former can surely be persuaded by argument, evidence and good writing; the entrenched, unaccommodating views of the remainder may be better ignored.
Capitulating to the peevers and cranks sacrifices brains to the zombie rule. I’d love to see more style guides dismiss it as the obstructive irrelevance that it is.
[Previously: How awkwardly to avoid split infinitives.]