Books more loved than looked in

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I mentioned recently here on Language Log that the people who live in terror of splitting infinitives appear never to have looked inside the handbooks that they claim to be respecting. I came upon a remarkable instance of this the other day while looking for something else.

Punctuality Rules! is advertised as "A blog devoted to writing, grammar, good manners, and basically trying to save Civilization, one punctuation mark at a time." In this post last year the proprietor, who identifies herself as "Deb", wrote about her beloved copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (of which she actually provides a photo):

Now, Strunk and White (as it's commonly called) is quite strict about some of its rules: don't end sentences with a preposition, never start one with a conjuction [sic], don't split an infinitive. All rules which common usage mostly lets slip these days. (How many non-writers do you know who even know what an infinitive is?) Its reputation is almost stodgy. A long list of rules and commands by two old, old men, you might think . . . and then you open it and start to read.

She loves her copy of S&W's third edition, of course, and she says that she reads it: "the quality of the writing is superb", and it is "possibly the very best place you can learn the rules", she thinks. I think the exact opposite is true. But never mind that. My point here is that as far as I can see, Deb hasn't actually paid attention to what The Elements of Style says.

For the little book in question does not say you shouldn't "split the infinitive". It correctly notes (on page 58) that "There is precedent from the fourteenth century down for interposing an adverb between to and the infinitive it governs", which clearly admits that the construction has a long history of being grammatical, and then adds that "the construction should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb." Two examples are given: to diligently inquire and to inquire diligently. The implication is that the first of these is permissible if you want to "place unusual stress on the adverb". Now, the descriptive claim seems entirely incorrect to me (if anything, it is the second that seems to stress the manner of inquiry), but that is not my concern here. My point is simply that you are not told that you shouldn't place stress on the adverb. S&W simply provide a bad piece of description — an inaccurate description of the relation between stress and adjunct placement. But they do not state that there is a rule against split infinitives.

White returns to the split infinitive in his added chapter on style, and he says there (page 78), with one of his usual annoyingly clever-clever attempts at witty phrasemaking, that the split infinitive is "a trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook." He asserts that "Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does", and cites I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow, calling it relaxed and clear. He approves.

It is true that he adds, "the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible", which does refer to the split infinitive as a "violation"; but he doesn't seem to mean it. He actually recommends the use of the construction. What his reference to it as a violation reveals is that he believes somewhere out there one will find "the handbook" in which the split infinitive is written up as a violation. He is just as deluded as Deb, who thinks it is in S&W. It isn't out there. There is no such handbook, at least as far as I can find out. I collect old grammars and prescriptive usage handbooks, and I have been hunting for this mythical proscription. It appears not to exist. All the style handbooks I have ever seen, agreeing with White himself, say that split infinitives are grammatical, unobjectionable, and often definitely preferred over the alternatives.

It is weird, and rather sad, that someone like Deb who is truly concerned about usage and punctuation and so on should profess to love and cherish Strunk and White's opinionated little booklet, but attribute to it a prohibition that it never actually expresses.

But there we are: it is typical of the level of knowledge about grammar in modern America. It doesn't matter if you're a workaday usage blogger or a press release writer at Harvard, you are likely to believe in the existence of rules that in fact are completely imaginary.

[Update: Deb has now exhibited on her blog something I had never previously seen: a rare example of a book that directly asserts you shouldn't split infinitives: it's by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, whose titles include The Well-Tempered Sentence and The Transitive Vampire. She is a fairly recent contributor to the genre, and doesn't rank very highly as a serious student of English grammar and style (her main specialism is a highly cutesy style of example construction, and mostly she just repeats standard dogma), but at least now I know of one book that (wrongly) asserts the split infinitive is a mistake, and I'm grateful to Deb for that.

Her response to me on her blog (she didn't email me) seems personally wounded, and I'm sorry about that. She appears to think that my point was about her and my aim was to be mean to someone. Actually my point was about a strange phenomenon in American society — millions of Americans believing in a grammar rule that is almost universally agreed to be a myth (see John McIntyre's blog for some excellent discussion) — and my aim was to express (not for the first time) my continuing bafflement at it. Finding someone who attributed the mythical rule to the highly conservative S&W when even they don't believe in it was just a happy discovery of free icing for the cake I was planning to bake anyway.

Deb also grumbles (and her commenters take up the refrain) that there is something unfair about me telling you what I think if I don't then open up a comments page. Well, of course Language Log had no open comments at all for nearly all of its first five years, and has never had a uniform policy of open commentary. And I, with my limited experience with the Word Press software, have never even stumbled upon the way you open up the comments area (it isn't immediately obvious, and the default is for it to be closed). I just write a few thoughts, hit the Save button, and get on with my day job as a professor. So don't imagine (as some of Deb's commenters do) that this is a door I have deliberately shut; it is a door I don't know the location of and have never yet opened. I'll probe around a bit more among the array of drop-downs at the end of the composition page (off the bottom of my screen) and see what I can find. If comments ever begin to appear, you will know that I found the secret spring.]

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2 Comments »

  1. outeast said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 3:53 am

    Congratulations on finding the the secret spring! (Is that the fo[u]nt of all wisdom?)

    I owe LL something of a debt of gratitude for ridding me of the mistaken notion that splitting infinitives is 'wrong'; for years I tortured many innocent sentences in undeserved ways in an attempt to avoid split infinitives when writing formal prose, accepting the often awkward-sounding results as being 'better' than the more natural and readable alternatives solely on the grounds of this one 'rule'.

    This is a good example of one thing that has got me addicted to LL: my teachers impressed upon me many crappy, disfunctional, and unlimately non-existent grammar rules which I am patiently trying to unlearn, and the LL faculty's untiring battle against prescriptivist poppycock is invaluable in this.

  2. Robert said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 5:17 am

    Just found your website, after hearing one of you discuss it on BBC Radio 4. I'm very glad to have discovered it, because it looks like good fun.

    I tend to avoid split infinitives in formal prose, because most, if not all, of my models from the last 200 years avoid them. It's a stylistic preference, based on good authority; but I was happy to find on your site confirmation of my suspicion that there wasn't an actual *rule* against the split infinitive.

    Teachers trick their pupils (and perhaps themselves) into sticking to canonical stylistic preferences by telling them that they are underpinned by rules, because it's easier to follow rules blindly than to understand the reasons for them. The trouble is, this method of teaching produces hordes of pedants who take pride in their knowledge of this or that rule, unaware that it is no more than the invention of some lazy teacher hoping to make their job a bit easier.

    For avoiding the split infinitive, there's a massive literary authority. But what I can't understand is this thing about sentences ending in a preposition (I remember C. S. Lewis railing against this mythical rule). George Eliot's novels, for instance, are full of sentences with prepositions, and I know of know finer prose stylist. So where did this ridiculous 'rule' come from?

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