I like the Economist and admire its commitment to a clear, plain style of writing. This makes it harder to excuse its perplexing stance on split infinitives. Its style guide says the rule prohibiting them is pointless, but “to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it”.
This is capitulation to an unfounded fetish. Why not just let the fussbudgets be annoyed? The style guide offers sound advice aplenty, but on split infinitives it sacrifices healthy brains to a zombie rule. The reason I bring it up again, having already shown why the rule is bogus and counterproductive, is a tweet from the Economist style guide:¹
There are two things I want to note here.
First, the tweet does not sit easily with the Economist’s position on split infinitives. The paper bans split infinitives because they annoy the people who are annoyed by split infinitives, and it allows this trifling antipathy to outweigh both the facts of usage and the good sense of less captious readers and of the paper itself.
To be fair, the Economist style guide does state the truth about split infinitives: “the ban is pointless”. Yet it continues to uphold the ban. Awkward much?
So let’s restate the truth, since it’s more important than the possibility of giving offence.
The split infinitive is fully grammatical, and has been for centuries.² A policy of avoiding it can get you in trouble. The Economist, though it knows better, outlaws a legitimate piece of syntax in order to appease contrarians who take automatic offence at it, and thereby generates confusion in its own copy and implicitly endorses a jaded superstition.
The second point is relatively minor and has to do with the typo in the tweet (more important that instead of …than). It’s a remarkably sneaky typo, which I’ve noticed repeatedly in edited publications. Writers, proofreaders, and style guide tweeters: beware this one.
John McIntyre, at You Don’t Say, finds the Economist‘s entry on split infinitives nonsensical and thinks there is “altogether too much catering to uninformed opinion”. He adds: “This is sheer cowardice, and I doubt that it would require a great deal of courage to surmount it.”
¹ If indeed that’s an official account; it’s still unverified. I don’t follow it on Twitter – I can only take so much arbitrary prescriptivism in my feed – but it’s on a list that allows me to keep an eye on it.
² Sometimes it’s best avoided for reasons of style, but that doesn’t affect its grammaticality or my argument.