To offensively split infinitives

August 2, 2014

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


economist style guide on truth, giving offence, than that typo

There are two things I want to note here.

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To infinitely split with sense

August 29, 2012

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.]

How awkwardly to avoid split infinitives

July 11, 2012

No other grammatical issue has so divided the nation (Robert Burchfield)

When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split (Raymond Chandler)

So there’s a rule in English, except it’s not a rule, but some people think it is, and others who know it’s not a rule obey it in case it bothers the people who think it is, even though it can cloud or change the meaning of their prose. Ah, split infinitives: what an unholy mess.

A split infinitive is where an element, normally an adverb or adverbial phrase, is placed between to and the plain form of a verb – to boldly go is a well-known example. The construction is six or seven hundred years old; there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it, and there never has been. Usually it’s not even a stylistic lapse.

Before we continue, I should point out that split infinitive is a misnomer, since English doesn’t really have them. But it’s a convenient and familiar term, so I’ll use it.

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