Archive for the ‘Split infinitives’ Category

Treading down the thorny path

March 16, 2021

Two evergreen topics in grammar and usage: so-called “split infinitives”, where some usage critics have insisted that they must always be avoided, however unnatural the results of this avoidance are; and modifier attachment, where jokes are often made about one of the potential attachments, however preposterous the interpretation associated with this attachment is.

The two topics are connected through their unthinking devotion to dogmas of grammatical correctness: avoid split infinitives, avoid potential ambiguity. A devotion that leads adherents down the thorny path of usage rectitude to using unnatural syntax and entertaining preposterous interpretations.

But first, the thorny path. The (tough) counterpart to the (easy) primrose path.


A zombie lurches in the NYT

May 20, 2018

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.

Environmentally responsible derivation

November 13, 2017

It starts with an ordinary noun source and an ordinary verb sustain and eventually works its way to the adverb sustainably as a modifier of a verb source, strikingly in the split infinitive construction to sustainably source, which Wilson Gray reported in an ADS-L posting on the 11th, citing a General Mills ad in which to sustainably source oats figures prominently.


Acronym of the week

May 1, 2013

From the NYT Science Times yesterday, in ” ‘Cured of AIDS’? Not Yet” by Donald G. McNeil Jr.:

“We should seek out, test and get people into treatment as soon as we possibly can,” Dr. [Anthony] Fauci said. “That way, you can get people into the position the Visconti cohort is in.”

(“Visconti cohort,” for Viro-Immunologic Sustained Control After Treatment Interruption, is a shorthand way of referring to the patients studied by the Pasteur Institute, in France.)

Someone labored hard to concoct that acronym.

A bonus from the same article, this “split infinitive” that caught my eye:

In this country, it is unusual for an infected pregnant woman to not see a doctor even once before delivery.

I probably would have moved the not up in the structure, to give not to see, but I’m not sure why; I certainly have no aversion to so-called split infinitives. Perhaps the writer systematically prefers to keep VP adverbs (like not) with the VP they modify (so that the infinitive marker to then combines with a full, modified BSE-form VP); there are certainly writers who do.


Avoiding a split infinitive

October 13, 2012

From the 12/3/11 Economist, p. 43, in “Marijuana in California and Colorado: Highs and laws”:

In October, California’s four federal prosecutors threw the state (and drug-lovers everywhere in the country) into confusion when they announced their intention aggressively to go after landlords who rent their buildings to dispensaries of medical marijuana, and even after newspapers, radio and television stations who accept advertising from sellers of the weed.

The placement of the adverb aggressively (which modifies the VP in go after… that follows) before the infinitive marker to struck me as awkward, suggesting (momentarily) that the intention was aggressive, that is, that the prosecutors intended something aggressively. This brief potential ambiguity in the scope of aggressively isn’t problematic in itself, but if the writer had alternatives that are better stylistically, they’d have done better to go with one of them.

And there is a clearly better placement for aggressively: snuggled right up to the head V, go, of the VP it modifies (go after landlords …): the intention to aggressively go after landlords … Why not go for it?

Presumably because that involves the configuration misleadingly known as a “split infinitive”, against which some people bear an irrational prejudice. More on this in a moment. First, a note on why I’m resurrecting a quote from last year.


More puns

July 15, 2012

Via Wilson Gray on Facebook, this New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress:

So: the idiom play dead, plus the band the Grateful Dead.


Split those infinitives!

July 12, 2012

In a posting by Stan Carey yesterday (“How awkwardly to avoid split infinitives”), this Ozy and Millie cartoon:


An insurmountable obstacle in the way of a speeding train

June 17, 2009

Ordinarily I wouldn’t comment on yet another raging against split infinitives, but the NYT Book Review chose to use a signficant amount of space to print an intemperate letter on the topic on 14 June (p. 6).

The letter by Richard Palumbo of New York (there are a number of Richard Palumbos out there, and I don’t know which one this is, so I have no idea how he comes to be pronouncing on matters of grammar and usage and founding a Society Against Split Infinitives), reacts to Roy Blount Jr.’s review of Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman’s Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.

Palumbo begins by noting that Blount summarizes O&K’s discussions of hopefully and disinterested/uninterested and goes on to inquire:

As one of the old “fuddy-duddies out there” mentioned by the same authors, I ask: What about split infinitives, which have become even more commonplace in both the written and spoken language?

and to cite a couple of examples from the Times and then to offer what I think is a novel critique of split infinitives (well, it’s based on the popular, though mistaken, idea that infinitival to + V is a unit, but it clothes this idea in a striking metaphor).


Postings on split infinitives

June 13, 2009

Another list of postings, this time on split infinitives. I looked for postings that had something substantial to say about them, rather than just mentioning them in passing.

For a compact discussion of the topic, see Geoff Pullum’s treatment on his website.

AZ, 5/14/04: Obligatorily split infinitives:

GN, 5/23/04: Split decision:

GP, 9/20/04: Two bites of authors’ remorse:

GP, 4/11/05: The pointless game of Grammar Gotcha:

AZ, 5/7/05: Not to or to not:

GP, 5/19/05: Obligatorily split infinitive in real life:

AZ, 7/14/05: No splitting in court:

EB, 11/5/05: Better to X than to not Y:

GP, 3/29/07: Joe, this is for you:

GP, 4/29/08: Irrational terror over adjunct placement at Harvard:

GP, 4/30/08: Books more loved than looked in:

AZ, 5/2/08: Nonintervention:

AZ, 5/10/08: Contamination:

AZ, 5/13/08: Crazies win:

ML, 8/21/08: Heaping of catmummies considered harmful:

GP, 8/21/08: Minor writers, revolt!:
GP, 9/26/08: Inconsistent Latinophilia: