Regrettably forced to cancel

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The misnamed "split infinitive" construction, where a modifier is placed immediately before the verb of an infinitival complement, has never been ungrammatical at any stage in the history of English, and no confident writer of English prose has any problems with it at all. (As the grammarian George O. Curme pointed out in 1930, it's actually the minor writers and nervous nellies, the easily intimidated, who seem to worry about it.) Quite often, placing a modifier just after to and just before the verb is exactly the right thing to do with a modifier in an infinitival complement clause (see the discussion on this page). However, that is not the same thing as saying it is always the right thing to do. Sometimes it's an absolute disaster. My colleague Bob Ladd was preparing to fly back to Edinburgh (EDI) from Munich in Germany when his airline, easyJet, sent him the following email (bafflingly, they sent it after he was in the departure lounge):

Dear DWIGHT ROBERT LADD

We are really sorry to inform you that your easyJet flight, 6914 to EDI on 24/09/2010 has been cancelled. We understand that cancelling your flight will cause you inconvenience and we are very sorry when things don't run as scheduled.

We always aim to provide the best possible experience when flying with easyJet, however from time to time situations arise which are out of our control. On this occasion we've been forced to take the decision to regrettably cancel your flight.

You can see that this is by an inexperienced writer just from penultimate sentence, with its the dangling participle (who is flying?) and classic "comma-splice" run-on sentence and mispunctuated connective adjunct however. But the placement of the adverb regrettably is a much worse mistake. It is a horrible, disastrous writing choice, genuinely leading to syntactic ill-formedness. But why, exactly?

It is not too hard to explain. Ask yourself what regrettably modifies. What exactly is being claimed to be regrettable here?

The intent seems to have been to use regrettably as what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would call a modal adjunct. It is supposed to convey roughly what it is regrettable that… would convey. And what is regrettable is the whole situation of easyJet being forced into this last-resort move. It's not like they were canceling the flight quite happily and had to choose between doing an ordinary cancellation or a regrettable one. The adverb regrettably is logically not supposed to be modifying the verb cancel.

Notice, the cancellation may not be regrettable at all. Suppose that an inspection of the plane on which Bob was to fly had revealed the engine number two was hanging on by two bent rivets and would drop off the wing after takeoff, dooming Bob and all the other passengers to a hideous death, and costing my department a valuable professor of linguistics and expert on intonation. Then the cancellation was exactly the right thing to do, and has saved many lives. What is regrettable is that the loose-engine condition arose, and that the cancellation was forced.

So the adverb needs to be either at the beginning of, or after the first auxiliary verb of, the part of the sentence that culminates in the key passive participle forced.

Now, the relevant sentence already has a preposed constituent (on this occasion), and conceivably the writer sensed that it would be better not to begin with two preposed non-subject constituents (to open the sentence with On this occasion, regrettably, we have been forced… would be perfectly grammatical, and I think I would have opted for it, but it might be criticized as a little clumsy); so another possibility was sought, and the terrible choice was made to delay the adverb until a point inside the cancel clause.

What the highly inexperienced message drafter wanted to say could reasonably be expressed using the post-auxiliary placement, as follows (and while I'm doing some unpaid consulting work for easyJet I might as well fix the dangling participle and the run-on as well):

We always aim to provide the best possible experience for you when you are flying with easyJet. However, from time to time situations arise which are out of our control. On this occasion we've regrettably been forced to take the decision to cancel your flight.

Notice what it is that is so stupid about the alleged rule "don't split the infinitive". First, it bars indefinitely many phrases that are entirely grammatical, like You were right to at least consider reporting it, or the other examples given here). Second, it makes some sentences impossible to write at all, because there are cases where immediately pre-verbal placement of an adjunct is obligatory, like Profits are expected to more than double (nobody with their head screwed on correctly thinks *Profits are expected more than to double is an improvement). And third, the overkill of the rule doesn't give you any clue about what is actually wrong with the easyJet message. There really are some cases in which placing a certain adverb between to and a plain-form verb leads to ungrammatical results, but if you're going to avoid them you have to see why that is: the thing to avoid is placing an adverb down in a subordinate clause when it rightfully belongs in the matrix clause containing it.

The take-home message: there certainly are rules of grammar that you shouldn't break, but it does you no good at all to have false beliefs about what the rules are.

(One further small lesson from this astonishingly fecund example of inept writing: American purists will notice that situations arise which are out of our control has an integrated (restrictive or defining) relative clause beginning with which. Most American copy editors and grammar pedants think this has to be avoided for grammatical reasons. They are wrong: see this page for discussion. Notice in any case that the message was written for a British airline, and British speakers have never been so inclined to believe in the fictive that-not-which rule that so many Americans suffer under.)


Hat tip, of course, to Bob Ladd. And welcome back, Bob. EasyJet: my fee for grammar consulting is $200 per hour or any part thereof. Just have your people send a check to my people. Or send two free open-date tickets from Edinburgh to Paris for me and Barbara. Thank you.

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16 Comments »

  1. pj said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

    My initial impression of the problem with that sentence is not of an intended 'regrettably' misplaced so much as an intended 'regretfully' misreached-for. They could be quite grammatically forced to regretfully cancel a flight, couldn't they?

    [Good point. Yes, with regretfully as the adverb, the sentence would be grammatical. —GKP]

  2. unekdoud said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    There are several places where the 'regrettably' can go without making the sentence illogical. "forced to (decide to) make a regrettable cancellation" doesn't seem so bad, though the 'regrettable' would then be redundant.
    In fact, the regret is implied/expected, so it could be moved to its own sentence, or placed in a parenthetical clause.

    Noting that both of the errors you pointed out occur in the second paragraph, I guess that the writers of the two paragraphs are different. Or perhaps the proofreader got tired before reaching the second paragraph.

  3. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    I think that pj is right, here, and that the writer ineptly and inaptly chose the incorrect word rather than stuffing a bizarre adverb into an infinitive.

    This is a close rendition of a sentence I heard from a workshop facilitator recently: "I want you to, while you have the chance, each fill out your survey forms." It has an adverbial clause and a pronoun splitting an infinitive. I was thrilled when I heard it.

  4. Mr Punch said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

    My immediate reaction was pj's. And with "regretfully," it's a perfect example of when an "infinitive" should be split.

  5. Peter Taylor said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    We always aim to provide the best possible experience for you when you are flying with easyJet.

    Why the continuous? "…when you fly with easyJet" seems more natural to me.

    Off-topic, but probably something Bob Ladd would benefit from knowing: in the small print of the information sheet easyJet give you when they cancel your flight is a bit about statutory compensation. The sheet doesn't mention two details. Firstly, you have to apply for it: they don't just refund your credit card automatically. Secondly, you can do it on their website in the reservation management section, rather than (as the sheet suggests) having to do it by post.

  6. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

    Awkward, yes, but for me if you put commas around it it seems fine. Certainly in casual speech, set off in its own intonational phrase, I would probably find it unremarkable.

  7. Chris said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 1:33 am

    I have to say, the offending phrase sounds perfect to me. I disagree that the cancellation itself can't be regrettable. "We've regrettably cancelled your flight" is perfectly sensible to me; I have no problem with "regretting" a loss even if the events around it may have made it inevitable.

    While "We regret cancelling your flight" would sound weird if the cancellation was not a mistake, "We regret that your flight was cancelled" is unexceptionable for me. The actual form of the sentence could mean either one, I think, so I automatically give it the more sensible latter interpretation. That's my best guess for why it's OK, at least.

  8. groki said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 2:24 am

    misnamed "split infinitive" construction:

    but, but, it sounds both grammar-y and broken: it must be linguistically wrong somehow! :)

    actually, I wonder how much the pithy memorable name has contributed to its longevity for so many nervous nellies, in a kind of inverse Sapir-Whorf: "if there's a term for it, it must really exist."

  9. Matt Pearson said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 4:22 am

    Ryan's comment echoes my reaction. The sentence works if "regrettably" is set off intonationally as a parenthetical. I might give the writer the benefit of the doubt and assume that that was the intended parse (given the text-internal evidence that the writer doesn't know how to punctuate effectively).

  10. peterv said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 4:26 am

    A blanket prohibition against split infinitives may also prevent clear expression of situations where some complex activity is modified; eg, to quickly learn to ride a bicycle is precise, whereas both to learn to ride quickly and to learn quickly to ride are ambiguous about what is being done quickly.

  11. Henning Makholm said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    Suppose that an inspection of the plane on which Bob was to fly had revealed the engine number two was hanging on by two bent rivets and would drop off the wing after takeoff, dooming Bob and all the other passengers to a hideous death,

    Sorry for interrupting the grammar lesson with with nitpicking, but this scenario wouldn't be enough to doom anyone to hideously die. Airliners are deliberately designed such that even with one engine lost, they will have sufficient thrust to climb, stay airborne while circling back to the airport, and land safely. If an engine fails at the worst possible moment during the takeoff roll (when the remaining engine(s) are not yet enough to complete the takeoff), there must be enough runway left to abort the takeoff instead and brake the plane down to a standstill safely. This is actually the controlling factor in determining how long runways need to be.

  12. Dominik Lukes said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 10:55 am

    While I can't fault the analysis, I don't see its purpose. At no point was there any potential for miscommunication nor was any serious point of grammar (agreement, tense, etc.) breached. Dangling modifiers are fun to pick apart but they rarely cause any real communicative harm until attention is called to them.

    I wonder whether, if untrained readers were asked to choose between the two alternatives, they would express a strong preference for one over the other, let alone identify the reason for their choice.

    The phrase "to regrettably cancel" produces 1600 hits on Google: http://j.mp/aTxmc1 many of which produce the same supposed logical ambiguity. At worst, we could question the writer's lexical choice but arguing over 'regrettably' v 'regretfully' seems to me just a short step from castigating people over 'hopefully'.

    My alternative take-home message would be: the rules of grammar are schematic both in their convention and their productive application. As long as the productive rule application schema fits in with the convention schema and communication is not disrupted beyond repair, we can leave well enough alone. There are additional available schemas of parsimony, elegant variation, cohesive harmony, social markedness, hypostasis prevention, etc. but none of these should merit much attention when dealing with an email written by an overworked marketing hack at easyJet.

  13. pm said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    Henning Makholm said (September 26, 2010 @ 10:23 am):

    "Airliners are deliberately designed such that even with one engine lost, they will have sufficient thrust to climb, stay airborne while circling back to the airport, and land safely."

    One of the more popular two-engine light planes has enough power in each engine so that if one engine fails mid-flight, the other engine has sufficient power remaining to fly you directly to the scene of the crash.

  14. Dan T. said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    Is the famously-disliked-by-purists usage of "hopefully" another example of a "modal adjunct"? If one said "On this occasion we've been forced to take the decision to hopefully cancel your flight," this would presumably be stating that one was canceling the flight in a hopeful manner (whatever that might be), but "Hopefully, on this occasion we've been forced to take the decision to cancel your flight" would be stating that one is hopeful that in fact the decision was made in favor of canceling.

  15. Iulus said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    I must admit, I really have no idea why you are criticizing this piece of writing. My only two possible interpretations of your scathing review is either you think "regrettably" should have been used as a sentential adverb (and therefore placed at the beginning or end of the sentence) or if the -able morpheme is throwing you off, while it seems natural to me, some other commenters, and the writer.

    But consider this adverb that threw me off recently from a Seattle public transit bus: "You may be visually and audibly recorded." My first thought was, "I might hear myself being recorded?" But the context made it clear that the author of the notice meant "auditorially." Was this an example of a "horrible, disastrous writing choice"? Maybe. I think more likely the author was unaware of the word "auditorially," knew "audibly," and used it because their vocabularly lacked any other adverb pertaining to hearing, simply ignoring the -ably morpheme's meaning altogether. Perhaps easyJet's writer, like me, is unfamiliar with the term "regretfully" and substituted the nearest word they were familiar with, too.

  16. Shawn T. said,

    October 23, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    The image on this page may be of interest:
    http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/blog/ball_dont_lie/post/NBA-cancels-Heat-Magic-preseason-game-due-to-sli

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