McIntyre, simmering

Act 2 of my latest posting on split infinitives looked at the prohibition against “split verbs” (as in “you can easily see …”), a proscription advanced in some legal and journalistic settings, almost surely as an extension of Alford’s Rule (No Split Infinitives).

John McIntyre has now fumed on his blog (on 4 June) about the appearance of No Split Verbs (in conjunction with No Split Infinitives) in the latest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, which has been proscribing the usage for decades, while usage authorities unanimously label the proscription as a groundless superstition.

McIntyre’s piece is full of frustration. He’s been bashing at NSV for years, and as a long-time newspaper editor, he has a real stake in the matter. (Many of the rest of us have more peripheral roles in the matter, though we sometimes have to cope with intransigent editors or with students who opt for awkward, at best, sentences because they were trying to follow what the believed to be “rules of English”). That’s topic #1 for this posting. Topic #2 has to do with the details of the proscription, and where it might have come from (beyond simple confusion about what is and what isn’t a split infinitive).

Topic #1. Here’s the thing: if someone perceived to have some authority on matters of grammar, style, and usage (from elementary and secondary school teachers through editors) says that X is proscribed, then the proscription against X becomes a “rule of English” and takes on a life of its own. And becomes, as I’ve observed several times, almost ineradicable. Bad advice drives out good — because the bad advice has the advantage of simplicity and clarity (never do X; do Y or Z instead), while the good advice allows for alternatives and requires people to make judgments about what they want to say or write in particular contexts.

Then along come grammarians and usage advisers who say that proscribing X is bad advice (McIntyre on NSV: “No reputable authority upholds it”), and was never good advice. People find this hard to accept.

One response: but a teacher taught me that X is incorrect; are you saying that my teacher taught me something false? The short answer to that is: yes. With the qualification that the teacher surely believed the teaching to be good.

Another response is to misinterpret what someone means when they say that there’s nothing wrong with X — as claiming that X is no longer unacceptable. This response assumes the validity of the proscription, as a “traditional rule” of the language, and sees the grammarian or usage adviser who permits X as abandoning this traditional rule. (Cue a chorus of “Decline of language! Lowering standards!”) But that’s not what the critics of the proscription are saying.

A further misinterpretation is that the grammarian or usage adviser who permits X is actually requiring X instead of the alternatives. Again, that’s not what the critics of the proscription are saying, though I can see what might give rise to the misunderstanding. If you are inclined to believe in One Right Way, then allowing X could be understood as requiring X.

Still another way of saving a proscription against X is to claim that X is “technically” incorrect, but that people (including educated people in elevated contexts) use it so often that the violation is minor and excusable. 

A related way of saving a proscription against X is to say that X is in fact a violation, but that experienced writers and speakers can get away with X to achieve some effect. You have to know what you’re doing, and you have to be doing it on purpose. And maybe you have to have sufficient standing on linguistic matters; X is not for ordinary people. (I hope to post later on these ideas.)

The point is that once a proscription is out there, it will be resistant to criticism. The AP Stylebook promotes this resistance for NSV in the journalistic world by keeping the proscription in print (compare the Texas Manual of Style in the world of legal writing, recently discussed here).

Topic #2. NSV is formulated in various ways in different places, and it’s not always easy to square the examples of the proscription in action with specific formulations. In addition, some formulations come with escape clauses, of the form “unless not splitting the verb would be awkward” or “except where splitting the verb is necessary” — advice that is hard indeed to take.

Bryan Garner’s heading for NSV in the “Superstitions” entry in Garner’s Modern American Usage has the formulation

Never split a verb phrase

which covers some cases not covered by banning the sequence

auxiliary – adverbial – main verb

In particular, it takes in complement-taking verbs other than auxiliaries (as in “It began gently raining”), and it takes in copular VPs (as in “Kim is rarely happy”). 

The AP Stylebook version talks about forms of verbs:

SPLIT FORMS: In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb (to leave, to help, etc.) or compound forms (had left, are found out, etc.)

with the escape clause:

Occasionally, however, a split is not awkward and is necessary to convey the meaning:

He wanted to really help his mother.
Those who lie are often found out.
How has your health been?
The budget was tentatively approved.

The “exceptions” are of several different types. The third one is especially interesting. It has an instance of Subject Auxiliary Inversion (SAI) in it, obligatory SAI in fact. SAI by definition splits the auxiliary (here, has) from its complement (here, been), with the subject (here, your health) intervening.

What interests me most here is the formulation in terms of forms of verbs. I pointed out in my last posting on NSV that infinitival to plus a following head verb of its complement is not in fact a syntactic constituent (except in certain special cases), and certainly not a form of the verb. The same is true of auxiliary plus a following head verb of its complement (infinitival to is much like an auxiliary verb, in several ways).

That is, an auxiliary verb combines with a VP (or a predicative phrase), to yield a larger VP. Different auxiliaries combine with different sorts of complements — have in the perfect construction combines with a PSP VP, as does be in the passive construction, while be in the progressive construction combines with a PRP VP and a modal combines with a BSE VP.

This syntactic analysis is supported by several lines of evidence, but for my purposes here what’s important is that since VPs don’t have to begin with their head verbs, but can have initial adverbials, “split verbs” should be, for the most part, unremarkable. “Split verbs” (and “split infinitives”) are just what we’d expect; we get them “for free”, as it were.

On the other hand, if auxiliaries are analyzed as parts of two-word “compound verb forms”, the existence of many acceptable types of “split verbs” is something of a mystery.

4 Responses to “McIntyre, simmering”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    Aren’t the infinitive marker and auxiliary verbs part of the AUX, which is separate from the VERB (though manifesting on it)? The AUX can – and sometimes must – move away from the verb – for instance in questions and negatives (Have you read? I have not read…). Why on earth shouldn’t simpler adverbials, or even more complex ones, go between as well?

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To The Ridger: “Aren’t the infinitive marker and auxiliary verbs part of the AUX, which is separate from the VERB (though manifesting on it)?…”

    I thought that that was what I was saying, though I didn’t use the labels. Maybe I was just unclear.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    You were clear enough – I was making sure I understood, since you were talking about existing auxiliary verbs, and the “do” in questions “comes out of nowhere” as a student said.

  4. Hotspur Says:

    Just stumbled across your blog. Great site. We talked once in your office, 1980, OSU.

    Here’s a story on rules for the insecure. I was working as a technical writer for an aerospace firm. My cubemate was working on a large presentation. Andy, the supervisor, retired Air Force sergeant, came by. “Stew, you’ve got ‘air tight’ spelled two ways in this presentation, with and without a hyphen. Which is it?”

    “If it comes before a noun, it’s hyphenated. If it comes after, it’s open.”

    “Yeah, I know. But which is it gonna be? Hyphen or no hyphen?”

    “Uh, if we say ‘an air-tight seal’ it’s hyphenated, if we write ‘the seal–‘”

    Andy waved his hand impatiently. “Yeah, yeah, I understand all that. But we gotta be consistent. What’s it gonna be?”

    Pause. “Uh, how about we hyphenate it?”

    Broad smile. “That’s all I was asking for. Hyphenated it is!”

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