Crazies win

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Geoff Pullum's most recent posting on split infinitives noted that handbooks on grammar and usage do not prohibit them, but most say they should be avoided, unless splitting the infinitive would improve clarity. When you think about it, this is decidedly odd advice.

There's some history here, which is well covered in MWDEU, and has now been briefly treated by John McIntyre in his blog You Don't Say. The short version: the split infinitive as a bugaboo lodged itself in "the popular press and folk belief" (MWDEU) in the 19th century, so that the handbooks now say (and have been saying for a century or so), in effect, that there's nothing grammatically wrong with split infinitives, but some people are offended by them, so you should avoid them as much as possible, to avoid giving offense. In McIntyre's words: "the only reason to avoid splitting infinitives is to escape the uninformed censure of people who think that it is a violation of grammar and usage."

In other words, crazies win.

I'll get to the crazies eventually. Hang on.

The handbook advice is about social behavior, not about grammaticality, writing style, grace, or even the exercise of taste in choosing variants. It seems to me that the handbook writers — including the revered Fowler and Strunk & White, by the way — who give this advice have simply abandoned their responsibility as advisers on grammar, usage, and style. If they'd done their job properly, the split-infinitive bugaboo might have died away in the popular mind long ago. Instead, we've had a century of timid advice that treats split infinitives as tainted and so helps to keep the bugaboo alive. In fact, it flourishes in the schools.

On split infinitives in the schools: even if you take Split Infinitive as Last Resort (SILR) to heart as advice about correct English usage, if you're a schoolteacher, you might well end up banning split infinitives entirely (No Split Infinitives — NSI) in your classes anyway.

Here's the reasoning: SILR comes up only infrequently, and teaching kids when a split infinitive is better than the alternatives is not at all easy — if you, in fact, have a grasp on the matter, which the handbooks don't explain well; mostly, they give exemplars and just say that these are cases where the split infinitive "sounds better" or "is clearer". Sometimes they give the advice without the exemplars, as in this passage from Laurie Rozakis's Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style (2nd ed., p. 133):

While I do not advocate that you go around town splitting infinitives with abandon, there's no point in mangling a sentence just to avoid a split infinitive. Good writers occasionally split infinitives to create emphasis, achieve a natural word order, and avoid confusion. If splitting an infinitive makes it possible for you to achieve the precise shade of meaning you desire, you have my blessing to split away.

(Rozakis, p. 135, also recommends avoiding stranded prepositions unless doing so would sacrifice naturalness and grace, and illustrates her advice with exactly one example, This ticks me off – which does not in fact have a stranded preposition. Sigh.)

In the face of such advice, you might well decide to just ban split infinitives wholesale. Then there's no issue. You might add, Rozakis-style, that there are circumstances where splitting an infinitive is ok, and good writers sometimes do that, but then tell your students that to be safe they should avoid split infinitives, though when they're older and more experienced they'll learn how to use them. Not For Kids.

Whether teachers proscribe split infinitives because they believe in NSI or because they think that's the easy route around SILR, their students grow up thinking that split infinitives are a Bad Thing. If, later in life, they come across SILR in the advice literature, what are they to make of it? What was once banned is now permissible, but in what circumstances? How to know when the alternatives are worse?

The advice givers have tacitly acquired their own tastes in the matter, but they can't assume that their readers (already) share these tastes. In fact, by formulating principles like NSI and SILR, they have failed to teach their readers anything useful about how they might judge different versions of infinitival VPs.

Now let's look at things from a student's point of view. Suppose you've been taught the "permissive" SILR rather than the "strict" NSI. Will you now split infinitives? Probably not, because of the "only when necessary" character of SILR. You can guess that if you split an infinitive, a teacher is likely to demand that you defend it, and your explanation that it just sounds better to you than alternative placements of the adverbial probably won't fly. (Similarly for writers dealing with copyeditors who hold to SILR.)

In general, the advice to use some variant X only when necessary will tend to drive X out of business, because it throws on the user of X the burden of justifying every single use of X.

What I've said so far is that, in practice, SILR is scarcely an improvement over NSI and in fact works to preserve the belief that split infinitives are tainted in some way.

Some usage advisers now say flatly that there's nothing wrong with split infinitives and you should use them whenever they suit you. To my mind, that's the only intellectually justifiable advice. But it bucks against the long and tenacious career of NSI in the popular mind and the unfortunate side effects of SILR in usage manuals.

Every so often, a colleague, scandalized, brings to my attention a split infinitive in the pages of the New York Times. As it happens, NYT writers, including those who write the editorials and the op-ed columns, split infinitives with moderate frequency and apparent abandon. Good for them. But a lot of people — among them, a lot of highly educated people — see these split infinitives as a sign of declining standards, the fall of Western civilization, the forthcoming apocalypse, and all that.

Which brings me to the crazies, who are one step up from those who merely believe, earnestly but incorrectly, that split infinitives are an offense against grammar. (I'll come back to these earnest objectors.)

Crazies are people who INSIST on having their way, who believe so passionately in (or against) something that they cannot let what they see as offenses pass. Crazies don't actually always win, but they're damn hard to deal with. If you have to deal with someone whose face turns purple, who sputters, and who bursts into tears whenever ducks are mentioned (I'm afraid this is not a fanciful invention of mine), then you're probably going to steer clear of duck talk around them. (It was in connection with this case that I first heard the slogan "crazies win" — from Ann Daingerfield Zwicky, some forty years ago. I'm not claiming that the slogan was original with her — surely it was not — only declining to take credit for it myself.)

Grammatical crazies are mostly just appalling nuisances, but if they're in a position of power, we've got a problem. I've met executives who maintained to me (on learning that I was a linguist) that if they got a job application that had a split infinitive in it, they would just throw it away. (Sometimes it's some other damning flaw, like using which as a restrictive relativizer.)

Now people who propose to give advice about grammar, style, and usage have a problem. What is this advice supposed to be good for? One thread of the advice literature is aimed at people who write a good bit, and it tries to push such writers towards greater grace and clarity, mostly by exhibiting flaws in the work of practiced writers (people who "ought to have known better").

Another thread is aimed at relative novices, especially young people and the upwardly mobile, for whom a major goal is achieving a socially acceptable presentation of self outside their usual communities; they'll be concerned, among other things, with avoiding negative judgments about their intelligence and abilities. That is, they don't want to look stupid, ignorant, or uneducated in contexts where intelligence, knowledge, and education are valued.

For this second group, the core of the problem is notably class-marked variants, and the list is not enormous: hisself, 3sg don't (She don't like it), past participle = past tense (I have wrote a letter), demonstrative them (them guys), AAVE invariant be (They be on my case all the time), non-standard double negation, AAVE copula omission (He my best friend), and so on. What's remarkable is how few of these variants are discussed at any length in the advice literature, which tends to focus instead on informal vs. formal variants (to disparage the former), spoken vs. written variants (to disparage the former), variants that are (or are perceived to be) innovative, and arcana like split infinitives, stranded prepositions, which vs. that, sentence-adverbial hopefully, and singular they, where social class associations are a very small part of the picture, but some people judge the disfavored variants to be signs of ignorance or lack of education. The list of these disfavored variants is huge.

People keep writing me to say that it's important that struggling students (of all ages) get advice about how to avoid looking ignorant and uneducated, and as a teacher (and I should add, a child of the working class), I certainly appreciate the point, though I'll add that a lot depends on the context; there are social advantages to be gained by avoiding class-marked variants in certain contexts, but in other contexts, people should be free to speak or write as they will.

Now we're up to an intersection with the topic of grammar crazies: what to say to students who naturally use the disfavored (but not class-marked) variants, like split infinitives. Sally Thomason is on record here on Language Log as recommending that such students should be warned that using these variants will lead some people to judge them negatively. After many years of wrestling with this question — I'd tell students that there were many people who viewed split infinitives as just wrong, and some who were lunatic on the matter, so they might want to take that into consideration — I've decided that the best advice is just to go ahead and do what seems natural to you. There are much more important things to worry about in this life, and if you think you can satisfy the tastes of everyone who reads what you write or hears what you say, you're doomed; a fair number of people are just LOOKING FOR evidence of ignorance and lack of education, and with some application they'll be able to find it, no matter what you do or how hard you try. (Remember that the list of disfavored, but not class-related, variants is huge.)

What you hope for is that the number of grammar crazies is small. So maybe you won't get that particular job — would you really want to work for that grammar crazy?

Back to the earnest objectors. Here, I get some mail that says: if most people think that X is ungrammatical, isn't X by definition ungrammatical? To start with, I'm not conceding that most speakers of English think split infinitives are ungrammatical, though I'll agree that many educated speakers think so.

But even if most people thought that way, that wouldn't make it so, for two reasons: one, beliefs about language use (what we might think of as "meta-facts") are not the same thing as facts about language use; the two things are often at variance. And two, the practices of people who speak and write a standard variety (educated middle-class people, especially those who are practiced writers and speakers) differ; there is considerable variety within the standard.

On point two: as part of this variation, some standard speakers elect — for whatever reasons — not to use (or at least to try not to use) some variants that other standard speakers use naturally. That's their prerogative. No one is telling them they HAVE to use these variants (much less that they have to ALWAYS use them rather than alternatives). There's a problem, though, when people who have chosen to avoid some variant seek to insist that other people (also speakers of a standard variety) adopt their practice.

There's no question that splitting infinitives is a variant within standard English, and has been for a long time. If you believe it's nasty, that's your personal taste, but you're going to have to live with the fact that other (educated and articulate) people do not share your taste, and you should stop beating them with a stick about how their English differs from yours.

(As many people have pointed out, the prejudice against split infinitives is indefensible on rational grounds. For my present purposes, I really don't care about that: you're entitled to your grammatical prejudices, however irrational, but you're not entitled to tell me, and other educated and articulate people, what to do.)

On point one: the disconnect between folk belief and fact — between "social fact" and "objective fact" — is a commonplace of social-science research, and indeed of research in science in general. (There's a fascinating literature on folk physics, and also some research on folk biology, folk logic, folk statistics, folk psychology, and more, not to mention folk beliefs about historical events. And, of course, folk linguistics.) This disconnect is a serious problem when researchers try to communicate findings to the general public: how to tell people that some of what they believe, and believe to be confirmed by their experiences, is seriously skewed, or just flat wrong? (No, I don't have a solution.)

The objective fact is that split infinitives are standard English. So my advice is: split an infinitive if it suits you (or don't, if that suits you). Good writers do it. And you don't even have to have a defense for it; do it because it sounds right for you. Don't let the crazies win.




  1. a. y. mous said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 9:59 am

    May sound stupid. Apologies.

    What is the difference between "grammaticality" and "grammar"?

  2. dveej said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 11:03 am

    Also may sound stupid/niggling/whatever – excuse me; but :

    1) if handbooks are saying things like "don't split infinitives", is there a Uber-handbook that you would recommend?; and

    2) in "This ticks me off", you say that "off" is not a stranded preposition. Then what is it? and, is having to categorize every word as one of The Seven Parts Of Speech part of my prescrptivist 3rd-grade teacher's evil legacy that must be expunged?

    Thanks for any clarification!!

  3. Arthur Crown said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 11:13 am

    "my advice is: split an infinitive if it suits you (or don't, if that suits you)."

    Dear Arnold,

    Ok, I'll try splitting a few infinitives but I have some questions.

    1. Shouldn't this advice apply to all questions of grammar? If not, why not?

    2. Is there any penalty (besides a possible social penalty) for being ungrammatical?

    3. Who is the judge, and who makes the rules, if any?

  4. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 11:59 am

    Quote: "I've decided that the best advice [for students] is just to go ahead and do what seems natural to you. There are much more important things to worry about in this life, and if you think you can satisfy the tastes of everyone who reads what you write or hears what you say, you're doomed. . ."

    What are the practical results of this belief? How does an English teacher grade a student's writing assignment after they have told that student to "write what comes natural" and not try to "satisfy the tastes of everyone," including the teacher?

    I'm not saying an English teacher needs to take a stand on split infinitives, but, like many of the admonitions, proscriptions, and prescriptions that I read on Language Log, these ideas deal with teaching English in theory but not in practice.

  5. Bill Walderman said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

    I'm very sympathetic to the arguments made in this posting. But as a lawyer in private practice, I face a problem in adhering to my anti-prescriptivist principles. My business consists in large part of written advocacy–trying to persuade people in writing of the correctness of a position on a point of law. Some of the targets of these efforts are government officials and some of them are businesspeople. Very few of them indeed have ever so much as taken a college course in linguistics.

    Of course, the key to successful persuasion is to present cogent arguments in a well-organized and effective form. But that is not the whole story: inevitably, the more superficial aspects of a written document play a role in convincing the reader of the validity or invalidity of the arguments presented in it. It's very important to avoid typos as much as possible, for example, because a document that's riddled with typos leaves the impression that the author is not a serious person and their views are not to be taken seriously.

    In the same way, some readers dismiss anyone who violates the conventions of traditional, prescriptivist "grammar" as ignorant and not serious. Years ago some high-school English teacher taught them that "which" should only be used to introduce "non-restrictive" relative clauses or that you should never, ever split an infinitive, and they fancy themselves experts on good writing, even though they are frequently people with limited intellectual horizons who don't read much beyond business communications and every-day, pedestrian journalism that's been subjected to copy editing by like-minded crazies. (That is not to say that all copy editors are crazies or that journalism can't be good writing.)

    The fact is, the world is full of crazies. What is an advocate, someone who is paid to represent their clients as effectively as possible, supposed to do? You can't be certain that the target of your advocacy is not a crazy and that violations of "rules" like the ban on split infinitives won't undercut your case. Unfortunately, the most responsible course is to observe the prescriptivist rules. Yes, I know: this is how the rules perpetuate themselves. But you aren't doing your job if you deliberately try to take them on.

  6. goofy said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

    Quote: "What are the practical results of this belief? How does an English teacher grade a student's writing assignment after they have told that student to "write what comes natural" and not try to "satisfy the tastes of everyone," including the teacher?"

    I think Zwicky is specifically only talking about disfavored, not class-related, variants here.

  7. Robert said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

    English doubtless has some constraints on how extensively infinitives can be split. If nothing else, using lengthy adverbial phrases in that position would be disfavoured on pragmatic grounds alone, at least in languages like English, since they keep people waiting for the verb. Its the same underlying principle as leads to heavy phrases getting pushed to the end of a clause, in certain circumstances.

    Whatever those constraints might be, it would seem better, and more interesting, to teach them than to declare open house. If more people understood them, and the rest of English grammar, intellectually, as well as in the intuitive way all native speakers usually do, while that wouldn't be enough to make them write well, it should be enough to stop them writing badly, assuming they want to.

  8. Mary Kuhner said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

    It seems to me that English teachers can do a good service to their students without fussing overly about split infinitives, by focusing on questions such as: Is it clear? Is it in the register you want for your chosen audience? Is it coherent? Is the fundamental grammar correct? Does it develop your argument? Is the tone the one you want?

    Most of the bad writing that comes my way fails in these regards, not in minutae. And these are the big ones, the ones that will lead to genuine trouble in your adult life. If the directions for opening the emergency life raft are muddled and unclear, or the diplomatic message gives offense when it meant to be polite, or the court testimony is taken to mean one thing when it was meant to mean another–those have big consequences, and not just because of the occasional knee-jerk prejudice.

    One of Roger Shuy's books has an example of someone who had difficulty clearly separating time frames–what happened before event X, what happened during it, what happened after it–and this led to his being convicted of murder. He wasn't able to clearly express that he did not know of the event before it happened; he kept muddling it up, and the jury read this as foreknowledge.

    As a college professor in the sciences, I would much rather my colleagues in English taught students to write clearly and coherently, rather than spending a lot of time on bugaboos.

    Mary Kuhner

  9. gribley said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

    Fantastic post, but Bill has laid out the problems nicely. You can't be sure of your audience, and, unfortunately, a large fraction of the population seems to have been educated by prescriptivists. In recent weeks I have been dinged for non-prescritivist use of "which", for use of "data" in the singular, and for NSI-contaminated uses described by Dr Zwicky last week. All of my commentors have PhDs in the sciences, all are ridiculously smart, and therefore all assume that their understanding of grammatical rules is complete. How much more dangerous to send a cover letter in response to a job ad, which will be read and judged by an HR flack whose knowledge of grammar comes from sixth grade a few decades ago?

    I don't know what the answer is, except to push back, to show that some of these rules are downright silly. We have to make the case widely that, although we might split an infinitive in a cover letter, it's not because we are bad writers. Once it's at least understood that point of view exists, maybe the crazies will have to be a little less judgemental, and the non-crazies who think they are following The Rules will back off a little.

    Until then, I'm afraid my cover letters will have to be carefully pruned of non-prescriptivist uses. This is sad.

  10. Nathan said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

    What Mary Kuhner said.

    A lot of the usage bugaboos that make their way into the advice literature become so influential because they are simple. It's very easy to identify passive voice, split infinitives, restrictive which, etc. You can quickly learn to spot these items and count yourself as one of the elite, looking down your nose at the sneetches without stars upon thars. I think this tendency accounts for the crazies, who are determined to hold onto that little bit of superiority.

    It's also much easier for an untalented teacher to scan for such "errors" than to teach students how to write effectively. It's like the difference between a computer spellchecker and a human copyeditor. In high school I took a creative writing class. The teacher, who was also the Advanced Placement English teacher, once marked down a poem of mine (I still think it was good!) for using "whether" without an "or not". Without simple nits like that to pick, how else could a teacher even grade a student's poetry?

  11. Bill Walderman said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

    The prescriptivist response: "Just because Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Samuel Johnson, Gibbon, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Jane Austen, Emerson, Thoreau, Thomas Carlyle, Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, Abraham Lincoln, George Eliot, Mark Twain, Henry James, William Faulkner, Winston Churchill, V.S. Naipaul, John Updike and even E.B. White (on occasion and very discreetly) did it, it doesn't make it right."

  12. Rubrick said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    I've noticed the following facts about many lingusts:
    - They rail (rightly) against style and usage guides which dispense dubious, ill-supported advice
    - They write beautifully
    Given this, has any linguist taken up the challenge and written a proper guide to good writing technique? I believe there are general, teachable principles (though few "rules") that can help one write better. Even the (here) much-maligned Strunk & White contains a lot of wheat among the chaff. I first encountered (and subsequently devoured) it in 8th grade, and while it indeed infected me with pseudo-grammatical prejudices that plague me to this day, on balance I think it improved my writing tremendously. "Omit needless words" and "Avoid the passive voice when possible" were eye-opening concepts to a 13-year old, and both are excellent pieces of advice if you apply them as a human with sense and not like a Microsoft grammar-checker.

    So, I eagerly await How to Write Well, by Someone Who Actually Understands Language.

  13. Ewan said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

    I agree one hundred percent with Bill's comment – not as a lawyer, but as a linguist! Linguists, just like any other academics, routinely give and follow the advice that one should write in an academic "tone" (read: a particular register) in an academic paper – and that that's, well, just the way it is…

    And before you go thinking that it ought to be okay to choose a different register as long as that only means making "real" grammatical choices — but not when it means applying unnatural, prescriptive rules like no-split-infinitives — consider how arbitrary that rule would be. In reality this is a social choice, and surely there is no rule for that!

    Just like in other situations, we choose between following the crowd and doing things our own way. We can't do *everything* our own way, but we probably shouldn't do everything the way others want us to either — particularly when it starts to get to us that people who don't really know anything about language are giving orders on the "best" way to talk.

  14. Jonathon said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

    It's very easy to identify passive voice. . . .

    Apparently not, given the number of people out there who seem to think that it has something to do with "there is/are" constructions. But I see your point and agree with it. It's easier to judge someone's writing by objective and easily identified means than it is to make more in-depth value judgements, even if those easily identified means have nothing to do with actual quality.

    I'm a little mystified by the "whether or not" incorrection, though. I'd actually been taught the opposite—that "or not" is unnecessary, which in prescriptivist terms means simply "wrong."

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

    The problem with not inflaming the crazies is that the crazies are way more creative than you are. Now that you know about duck crazies, will you avoid mentioning ducks? Geese too? How about penguins, clouds, moonbeams, nuts?

    Inoculate readers. Gently introduce the sense that the text will be in a slightly different register than they're used to criticizing. Writing is theatre; induce a bit of suspension of disbelief. Archaicisms are gentle; use "be" in place of "is" in the first paragraph. A quoted half-line of poetry is gentler still. Even a crazy appreciates not being bored.

  16. Mark A. Mandel said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

    dveej asked

    2) in "This ticks me off", you say that "off" is not a stranded preposition. Then what is it? and, is having to categorize every word as one of The Seven Parts Of Speech part of my prescrptivist 3rd-grade teacher's evil legacy that must be expunged?

    Well, we call it a particle, which isn't one of the Eight Parts of Speech I learned in grade school. English has a lot of "particle verbs"; a few off the top of my head are

    give up (=surrender)
    give out (=get used up)
    tick [someone] off (=irritate)
    tell [someone] off (=rebuke)

    These have to be learned as units; you can't figure out what they mean by putting together the meanings of the verb and the particle. In this respect they differ from verb + adverb constructions like

    send out / in / away / overseas / up to the boss
    reach out / in / up / across the table / into your pocket

    where the adverb(ial phrase) has the same meaning with the verb that it has without it, and you can use any adverb that makes sense.

    Sure, there are borderline cases and shifts over time, but this is a real distinction in English.

  17. Aaron Brown said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

    So, I eagerly await How to Write Well, by Someone Who Actually Understands Language.

    Check out Joseph Williams.

  18. James Wimberley said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

    John Betjeman wrote a nice poem encapsulating the linguistic snobbery of the English middle class in the Thirties, How To Get On In Society. It's still funny, even if most of the examples are outdated:
    "Phone for the fish knives, Norman
    As cook is a little unnerved;
    You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
    And I must have things daintily served…."
    What we need is a similar satire on grammatical snobbery. Could one of the billionaire readers of Language Log perhaps offer a large prize?

  19. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

    In "to tick someone off," I believe that traditional eight-parts-of-speech grammar (of the sort that prescriptivists always seem to use) classifies "off" as an adverb.

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 10:21 pm

    Mark A. Mandel > English has a lot of "particle verbs

    The general form, though, is called a "phrasal verb".

  21. Anonymous said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 8:29 am

    @Mary Kuhner: "As a college professor in the sciences, I would much rather my colleagues in English taught students to write clearly and coherently, rather than spending a lot of time on bugaboos."

    You made me laugh. I used to work as a copy editor, I've taught grammar to high school students for the ACT, and now I teach philosophy. My rule for my students is "clear, consistent, coherent." I don't care what system they use, I don't care if grammatical rules (real or imagined) are not strictly observed, as long as students are clear, consistent, and coherent. So close your quotations, please, but split your infinitives if you like.

    The result of this is that students constantly come back from the Writing Center and say, "The Writing Center doesn't like your assignment," or "The Writing Center didn't believe me that you said I could split infinitives/use this citation system/do something else." So I started providing a bullet-pointed list of my general writing instructions that students could show to the Writing Center. Over time it's grown to two full pages between a) utterly insane student choices I never would have contemplated and b) continual objections from the Writing Center that I couldn't POSSIBLY have told students they could do THAT.

    I generally like the Writing Center — students who use it tend to have better-organized papers with better-expressed arguments — but boy howdy do at least some of them need to relax!

    On another note, we were reading student papers in a sort of round-robin a few weeks ago, so I got to see some of my colleagues' marks. I was interested to see that split infinitives that made the writing stronger, more graceful, and more clear were CONSTANTLY marked as wrong (and points taken off), but free-range pronouns with no clear antecedents, such that I had to reread the sentence (or even back up a couple sentences) to figure out who the heck we were talking about — those were totally let go. Commas were ruthlessly shoved back inside quotes, but missing hyphens in compound adjectives (where the lack of hyphen made the meaning unclear) were ignored.

    One in particular grades students very harshly on their grammar in papers, and has been on my back for not also doing so. (I correct it as I go for their information and education, but don't generally take off marks unless it's unreadable.) Now I feel kinda bad for his students, since his grammar rules appear to be almost entirely arbitrary and extremely selective. You could obey every rule from any stylebook you chose, and you'd never turn in what he considered a grammatically-perfect (and orthographically- and stylistically-perfect) paper.

  22. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 10:55 am

    To Andy Hollandbeck: you took my advice out of its context. It was advice about *splitting infinitives*, not about writing in general. I was not saying, nor have I ever said, that students should *in general* be advised to just write what comes naturally.

    I advise my students on writing standard English. But split infinitives *are* standard English, so it would be wrong to advise my students to avoid them. They are, in the words of Paul Brians (Common Errors in English Usage), instances of "non-errors", "those usages people keep telling you are wrong but which are actually standard in English."

    I suspect that some of the comments I've been getting have been based not on what I wrote but on what the commenters expected a linguist to believe. Maybe I'll post about the matter — again.

  23. Chad Nilep said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 11:40 am

    'True Story' (I)

    When writing my MA thesis, I had occasion to refer to generic, singular third-persons. (I forget the actual sentence, but it was something like "When a speaker does X, she/he/they will do Y.") In the draft I submitted to my adviser, I think I used singular *they* as the pronoun. The adviser objected, and insisted that I use *s/he*, which is allowed by the Linguistic Society of America's "Guidelines for Nonsexist Usage".

    I made the change, and passed the manuscript on to another member of my committee. This person objected to *s/he* and said that only (pseudo)generic *he* was acceptable in a thesis.

    I made that change, and passed the manuscript on to the third member of my committee, who objected to *he* and insisted on… singular *they*.

    True Story (II)

    When I taught English composition, I told my students True Story I, and ended by recommending that they (1) be clear and consistent in their writing, (2) don't worry unduly about variably preferred usages, and (3) know that whatever they choose, someone will probably object.

  24. Philip said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 11:51 am


    A little more about particles:

    Partical movement is optional:

    He looked up the word in the dictionary.
    He looked the word up in the dictionary.

    But if the direct object NP is a pronoun, it is obligatory:

    *He looked up it.
    He looked it up.

    Particals aren't prepositions, but sometimes they must be "stranded."

  25. perspicio said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

    If only we could harness the awesome power of split infinitives for the forces of Good!

    I'd like to split a few infinitives myself, but it's not as easy as you might think. But here's how I'd do it:

    I would survey my vocabulary to discover where the rich veins of infinitives reside, or else import them from other people's vocabularies.

    Then I'd refine and enrich them, as well as build the proper syntax vessels in which to contain them, all while avoiding the obvious perils of being discovered by the grammar nazis.

    Using my connections within the linguistic crypto-anarchists' community, I'd smuggle myself into a grammar pedants' convention and wait until the grammar nazis had the floor.

    Finally, when the timing was right, I'd spring out from behind a giant potted tongue fern, scream, "Vive la freakin' Esperanto!", and mash my finger down on the adverbalizer – Oh! The ecstasy of release it would bring, to finally…totally…and irrevocably obliterate them!

  26. John Cowan said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

    Usage guides that go by the facts, not by the book:

    The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), mentioned in the main posting.

    The M-W Compact Dictionary of English Usage (MWCDEU), which is abridged from MWDEU but also updated.

    The Elements of Style Revised, my rewrite of Strunk's original 1918 little book. I used MWCDEU to assist in some of the points I added to Strunk as well as some of those I removed.

    "He looked up it" is of course perfectly grammatical when "look up" is not a phrasal verb.

  27. Linda the Copy Editor said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

    John, I'm not sure what you mean by "by the book."

    I mean, I do know what you mean, but the fact is there IS no "book" on this issue. No respected usage guide, however prescriptive, will tell you split infinitives are wrong. You don't need to slide all the way over to MWDEU for that.

    I'm sure this will make you all laugh, but I wish commenters could distinguish between "prescriptivists" who have some idea what they're talking about and "prescriptivists" who don't. To me, people who don't accept singluar "they," for example, might be compared to people who think it's unethical to take ballpoint pens home from the office. People who think split infinitives are wrong are like people who think you're "stealing" if you wander off to put a load of laundry in when the commercials come on your TV.

  28. John Cowan said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

    By "by the book" I mostly mean "by the previous books". Someone invents a rule and puts it in his book, and then it's copied to other books, usually becoming more rigid as it goes; "which/that" is the canonical example. For split infinitives in particular, google for "don't split infinitives" and see what you get.

    MW(C)DEU, though, refers to the actual usage of good writers, "the facts".

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