Irrational terror over adjunct placement at Harvard

The recent gift of a staggering $100,000,000 by a single person to Harvard University — the largest gift from an alumnus in Harvard's history — has just been announced, in prose that suggests no matter how much money they may raise, the development and public relations staff at Harvard are afflicted by ancient irrational terrors: David Rockefeller, a member of the Harvard College Class of 1936 and longtime University benefactor, has pledged$100 million to increase dramatically learning opportunities for Harvard undergraduates through international experiences and participation in the arts.

What are "dramatically learning opportunities", you might ask? We'd normally expect an adjectival rather than adverbial modifier on "learning opportunities"; is it a typo for "dramatic learning opportunities"?

No. The writer of this newsletter item (see this link) was in the grip of unreasoning fear, too petrified to consider using a normal and fully grammatical construction of Standard English that is acknowledged as grammatical in even the most conservative reference works, and never was ungrammatical at any time in the entire history of the language. Rather than use this much-dreaded construction, the writer blundered into something that actually is ungrammatical, and put an adverb in a position that actually is syntactically blocked. It truly makes me wonder whether intellectual progress is possible for a tribe as prone to panic and primitive superstition as modern educated Americans.

Standard English in both its American and British varieties permits a manner adjunct (like the adverb dramatically) to occur in various places in a clause, one of them being between to and the plain form verb in an infinitival clause, but it does not normally permit any adjunct to occur between a transitive verb and its direct object. Thus [1] and [3] are grammatical, but [2] is not:

[1] This gift has dramatically improved things. (before verb)

[2] *This gift has improved dramatically things. (before object)

[3] This gift has improved things dramatically. (after object)

There is an exception: when the direct object is long or complicated, it can be shifted to the end of the verb phrase, after all the other constituents, including any manner adjunct. However, the object has to be shifted to the very end, not just part of the way. Thus [4] is OK; and [6] is fine, since the direct object (a total of a hundred million dollars) is long enough to be shifted right to the the end; but [5] is at best of poor acceptability (people are telling me they don't think it is really ungrammatical, so I mark it with "?" rather than a star):

[4] Mr. Rockefeller has generously given a grand total of a hundred million dollars to the university's international experience programs.

[5] ?Mr. Rockefeller has given generously a grand total of a hundred million dollars to the university's international experience programs.

[6] Mr. Rockefeller has given generously to the university's international experience programs a grand total of a hundred million dollars.

The sentence from the Harvard Alumni newsletter is parallel in structure to [5]. (I assume that the preposition phrase beginning with through modifies the verb phrase rather than being included in the direct object noun phrase. That is, Harvard plans to increase learning opportunities for Harvard undergraduates, and the increase will be achieved through international experiences and participation in the arts. The through phrase cannot plausibly be seen as part of the noun phrase headed by opportunities.)

I conclude that the writer actually wrote something fairly unacceptable in order to avoid something — the "split infinitive" — that would have been fully acceptable to most normal people who had not been cowed by prescriptivists.

For, let me just explain to new readers (specialists on the English language are well aware of it), putting an adverb between to and its following verb in an infinitival clause is perfectly grammatical; it always has been throughout the history of English; and even quite conservative usage books agree on this. The ignorant usage pedants who condemn it and the authoritarian copy-editors who change it by moving the adverb, have not researched the history of this construction in English literature, and apparently have not even read the English usage handbooks they claim to respect.

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