A zombie lurches in the NYT

From the New York Times, “Is a Dumber Phone a Better Phone?” by John Herrman, on-line on May 16th, in print today under the title “A new crop of smartphones has arrived, aiming to improve on the iPhone — not by being better but by being substantially worse” (crucial bit boldfaced):

[Nokia’s model] 3310 is at its genuine best when it falls like a smooth stone into your pocket, where, rather than constantly buzzing at the periphery of your consciousness, it sits inert, ready mostly to be ignored.

The alternatives, which turn on what’s in the scope of the modifying Adv mostly ‘usually, generally’ (NOAD):

(a) mostly ready to be ignoredmostly modifies the predicative AdjP ready to be ignored

(b) ready mostly to be ignored (above) – mostly is either a postmodifer of ready or modifies the infinitival VP to be ignored

(c) ready to mostly be ignored (“split infinitive”) – mostly modifies the predicative BSE-form VP be ignored

(d) ready to be mostly ignored (“split verb”) – mostly modifies the predicative PSP-form VP ignored

The intended meaning is that what is usual or general is for the user to ignore the smartphone.

Alternative (a) has the wrong meaning; alternative (d) has things just right; alternative (c) is very close to equivalent in meaning to (d); and alternative (b) is ambiguous, with one meaning not the intended one and one close to equivalent in meaning to (d), but with modifying mostly quite distant from the crucial verb-form ignored, which makes (b) really clunky (as well as potentially misleading. I’d go for something like (b) only if it was the only available alternative, and it jumped out at me unpleasantly when I read Herrman’s piece.

A great many writers and editors would avoid (c) because it’s a (so-called) “split infinitive” (SI), a construction with material intervening between the infinitive marker to and its VP complement. Irrational aversion of SIs has a long sad history, but even peevish and sticklerish usage advice has been shifting in their favor in many circumstances: the Economist and the AP Stylebook, among others, have now gotten on board.

(The 2017 print edition; 2018 is available on-line to subscribers.)

Alternative (d) — which, I remind you, ought to be the clearly favored one — falls foul of an irrational aversion that has an even sadder, and weirder, history than the proscription against SIs: a proscription against “split verbs” (an SV has material intervening between an auxiliary and its head verb), as in I will soon leave as an alternative to I soon will leave (and Soon I will leave and I will leave soon). Part of the weirdness of the no-SV “rule” is that it’s a journalist thing, essentially unknown outside of style/usage advice for journalists, but held to with great ferocity there.

There’s considerable discussion on Language Log on the SV ban, especially by Mark Liberman (search under “split verb”), and some on this blog, but the most pointed treatments of the SV ban have come from John McIntyre in his copyediting column in the Baltimore Sun. John periodically rages against this usage superstition (as Bryan Garner terms such “rules”), this zombie rule (my terminology), heaping piles of steaming abuse on it as “the dumbest rule in the AP Stylebook” and the like. On this blog, me writing about John in a 6/19/09 posting “McIntyre, simmering”.

Maybe the AP Stylebook folks finally listened to John (he talks this way at copyeditors’ conferences, after all), or maybe the revelation came down to them in a flaming pie, but it seems they’re no longer insisting that writers and editors undo SVs in favor of something else, anything else (except an SI, of course).

But old habits die hard, and we see in the passage from John Herrman’s piece (above) an experienced journalist’s adherence to the SV ban, at the cost of producing a little bit of strikingly unlovely prose. All the more noticeable because it immediately follows some lively, nicely crafted writing.

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