When zombie rules attack

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My post on "The split verbs mystery", which was stimulated by a comment from Alan Gunn, in turn stimulated a couple of informative reactions from copy editors.

John McIntyre verified ("Oh, keep your peeves to yourself") that a prejudice against "split verbs" has afflicted not only many law review editors but also some journalists:

I’m particularly irritated by the journalistic taboo against putting an adverb between the auxiliary and main verb — writing always has written instead of has always written. It is not, strictly speaking, an error of grammar, but it is awkward and non-idiomatic syntax. If I have time to change it while editing, I do so, and no one has ever complained. (And if you read over has ever complained just now without finding it amiss, you see how idiomatic English is written.)

And Fev at headsup: the blog offers some evidence that the split-verb superstition is still around ("Misspent resources", 8/24/2008).  He cites an AP story that included the sentence

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who ran so closely to Obama in the primary, was never seriously considered, said two officials involved with the search.

and notes that a verson in his local paper that was edited to read

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton never was seriously considered, said two officials involved with the search.

A quick Google News search shows that this version showed up in the Seattle Times as well.

(The funny thing about this case is that the verbal sequence is *still* split, since seriously was left in place.)

And in the comments on my post, TootsNYC (also a copyeditor) confirmed Alan Gunn's belief that some people think that verbal sequences like "will release" are infinitives:

When i worked on a news magazine, the word "also" was always placed before the verb:

"The company also will release a new product…"

I started querying every editor or reporter who handed me a story w/ that in there. To a person, they said, "You are not supposed to split the infinitive."

And "Marc in Chicago" agrees:

Over the years, I've had colleagues edit my "will generally be," "has often been" or similar constructions to "generally will be," "often has been" (or the like), which, to my ear, sound awkward and unnatural.

When questioned about what they found wrong with the original, the answer has always been, "You're not supposed to split an infinitive."

All this makes it more plausible that the mid-20th-century dip in relative frequency of medial adverb placement in <always> has <always> been <always> (see the tables here) really did reflect a period of prescriptive influence, however misguided.

Arnold Zwicky has suggested the term zombie rule for this kind of thing:

[N]o matter how many times, and how thoroughly, it is executed by authorities …, it continues its wretched life-in-death in style sheets and grammar checkers and the like.

Or in the minds of some law students and copy editors.

As John and Fev pointed out — and as James Lindgren argued at length in the review I quoted in my original post — nearly everyone who has written about this particular case, even the most stalwart "prescriptivists", thinks that the concern about "split verbs" is silly and groundless. Does anyone know of any source advising against placing adverbs in the middle of such verbal sequences, besides some editions of the Texas Manual on Style? Does anyone know when it first appeared there, and who was responsible for introducing it, and what their motivation or reasoning was?

Or was there some genuine underlying historical change involved?

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26 Comments »

  1. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    "ran so closely"?

  2. Matt Pearson said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

    My guess is that this is just what it looks like from the anecdotes you cite, namely an extension of the "never split an infinitive" rule. People remember that they're not supposed to split infinitives, but they don't remember (or never knew) exactly what an infinitive is. Actually, the extension makes a certain perverse sense: if adverbs shouldn't appear between "to" and a non-finite verb, perhaps they shouldn't appear between auxiliaries and non-finite verbs either (insofar as "to" and auxiliaries are roughly analogous in their syntactic relationship to the verb). But whether this idea was ever enshrined in a style book, I don't know. And of course, the "never split an infinitive" rule is ludicrous to begin with, so any extensions of it to other domains are bound to be just as ludicrous.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

    Ralph Hickok: ran so closely?

    This seems to be another editing incorrection, based on the concern that "ran so close to Obama" is using an adjective where an adverb is (felt to be) needed.

    See previous posts on think different, drive safe, and eat local.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    @Matt Pearson:
    What you write makes sense, but it would be nice to have some documentation.

  5. Sili said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

    I find that it's easier to stay sane in these matters by subscribing to your bar-bet hypothesis.

  6. Nathan Myers said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

    Once you internalize a rule about splitting infinitives, can you accept splitting any pair of words that would be a single inflected word in Latin? It's amazing how clever people are at identifying compounds that would be a single inflected word in Latin without knowing any Latin.

  7. ray said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

    I have a copyright 1994 edition of the APStylebook and the entry on verbs says:

    "In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb (to leave, to help, etc.) or compound forms (had left, are found out, etc.) …
    [snip - there follows a series of examples]
    … "Occasionally, however, a split is not awkward and is necessary to convey the meaning." [examples follow]

    So, perhaps the prescriptivist copyeditors are misapplying a style point on this one?

  8. Adrian Bailey said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

    What are the examples of "awkward constructions" that AP lists?

  9. Dan in Texas said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

    As a newspaper copy editor, I have seen colleagues change "she was still asleep" to "she still was asleep," and "he is reportedly lazy" to "he reportedly is lazy," on the grounds that "you're not supposed to split a verb."

    It's not just infinitives that some people in my business misunderstand.

  10. Andrew said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    I once knew someone who extended the scope of this rule even more radically; he claimed that 'holding the traffic up' was unacceptable, because it contains a split verb. If I remember rightly, he would have accepted 'holding the traffic up' if it had meant actually lifting it – I suppose on the grounds that in that case 'holding' and 'up' would be distinct units of meaning – but, when 'holding up' has its usual meaning of 'delaying', it had to be 'holding up the traffic'.

    I cannot believe that he thought 'holding up' was an infinitive, so this must have been a conscious extension of the rule. I suppose it might be justified on the 'Never split something that would be one word in Latin' basis.

  11. TootsNYC said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

    "void awkward constructions that split . . . or compound forms (had left, are found out, etc.)"

    But isn't this the problem?

    Those are auxiliary verbs, and the adverb should follow them–had promptly left, are frequently found out, will soon release.

  12. Charles said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

    It's interesting that all these copy editors want to bend to Latin sensibilities, but not to Germanic ones. In German, splitting separable verbs and auxiliaries from infinitives and participles is not only accepted… it's the rule! Latin and Romance languages gave us a lot of vocabulary but isn't our grammar Germanic at heart?

  13. Karen said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

    @Andrew: surely he didn't apply that to pronoun objects as well? "Holding up it"? "Turned him on" vs. "turned on him?"

    Yikes.

  14. Stephen said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 12:27 am

    Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926) provides some interesting insight on this (this was probably mentioned in the review, but I thought I'd bring it out again).

    He criticizes those 'who would as soon be caught putting their knives in their mouths as splitting an infinitive but have only hazy notions of what constitutes that deplorable breach of etiquette.' He lists several examples with oddly placed adverbs owing to the writer's fear of splitting passive constructions ('really to be understood' instead of 'to be really understood')

    He addresses the split-verb mystery in more general terms in his entry on the position of adverbs: 'it is plain . . . that a prejudice has grown up against dividing compound verbs; it is probably a supposed corollary of the accepted split-infinitive prohibition; at any rate, it is entirely unfounded.'

  15. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 7:56 am

    This is evidently a hangup of the heathen English, not of us purer Anglophones from North Britain:

    Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled
    Scots, wham Bruce has aften led
    Welcome to your gory bed
    Or to victory!

  16. fev said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

    The AP Stylebook entry on "split forms" the Ray notes is consistent from at least 1984 (earliest edn of the full-size stylebook I have around here) to 2007. So at the least, I'd say there's a perception that infinitives and "compound forms" are covered by some of the same rules. (And I can't think of another reason why editors would read a linking verb and a predicate adj — "it is also common for editors to bumble other compounds" — as the sort of thing that needs to be corrected to "it also is common for …")

    Part of the problem is that the AP example doesn't give a very good idea of what makes a split "awkward." Here's the stylebook:

    Awkward: There stood the wagon that we had early last autumn left by the barn.
    Preferred: There stood the wagon that we had left by the barn early last autumn.

    But clumsy placement of time adverbs is a common feature of AP writing ("President Bush Wednesday vetoed …"), so AP's cure doesn't really address the flaw: Would "There stood the wagon that we early last autumn had left by the barn" be a preferred substitute too?

    Another problem is that "awkward" requires a value judgment. You (the rimrat) might think a split is preferred, but if you know the slot editor disagrees — or you both know that "Never split a verb" is the one "rule" that sank into your publisher's brain back in Kollidge — there's more to be gained by unsplitting the damn thing than by letting it stand.

  17. Bill Walderman said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

    "In German, splitting separable verbs and auxiliaries from infinitives and participles is not only accepted… it's the rule!"

    But German never splits infinitives, i.e., "zu" is never separate from the verb-form, I think. Am I right about this? (When "zu" is a separable preposition, of course, it's different. "Mach die Tuer zu!" You can say "Er is gegangen, die Tuer zu zu machen" where the second, not the first, "zu" is part of the infinitive.)

  18. fev said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    Here's the only out-and-out prohibition on auxiliary/verb splitting I've been able to find in journalism stylebooks or textbooks, from Melvin Mencher's "News reporting and writing," 8th edition, p. 739:

    Do not separate parts of verb phrases.
    AWKWARD: The governor said she had last year seen the document.
    BETTER: The governor said she had seen the document last year.

    As with the AP example, the placement of the time element is genuinely clumsy, but it'd be just as clumsy if you unsplit the verb in more typical news style: The governor said she last year had seen the document.

    For what it's worth, the next entry says to "_avoid_ split infinitives."

  19. Andrew said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 11:07 am

    Karen – hm, hadn't thought of that. (But wouldn't 'turn on X' and 'turn X on' have different meanings even when 'X' was a noun phrase?)

  20. David Marjanović said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

    But German never splits infinitives, i.e., "zu" is never separate from the verb-form, I think. Am I right about this?

    Yes. Kühn dorthinzugehen, wo kein Mensch je zuvor…

    Do not separate parts of verb phrases.
    AWKWARD: The governor said she had last year seen the document.
    BETTER: The governor said she had seen the document last year.

    Isn't this an instance of a completely different peculiarity of English, the rule that times and places are put at either the beginning or the end of a sentence? That's something I was explicitly taught at school because German does it differently.

  21. Sociolinguistics and the Botched Oath « Dan Scherlis said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    [...] superstition, and thus a key player in "Grammatical indoctrination at law reviews". (He later suggests that split-verb-phobia also infected journalism. As is typical of Language Log, the comments rival [...]

  22. James D said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

    This is definitely that sort of English up with which someone should not have put.

  23. An insurmountable obstacle in the way of a speeding train « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    [...] discussion from Mark (and more comments) in a follow-up posting here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)peeve vocabularySplit [...]

  24. Lucy said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    On the subject of making English more like Latin, despite its Germanic origins:

    I know that when English was consolidating as a written language and dictionaries and grammar books were becoming common, there was a general belief that Latin was "the perfect language" of sorts, and that many people at that time believed English to be derived from Latin, rather than Germanic. At the very least, there was an effort to make English more like Latin, or to argue that it should be more like Latin.

    And now that I look up sources…:

    "Still a third factor that encouraged attempts to codify, clean up, and improve English grammar was the prevailing notion that language was of divine origin and that there existed a "universal" grammar from which contemporary languages had deteriorated. Greek and Latin were (wrongly) assumed to have deviated less from this original purity than had the various European vernaculars, and thus they (especially Latin) were regarded as models upon which an improved English grammar should be based. … These were precisely the goals that most eighteenth-century grammarians set for themselves: to ascertain (or to establish rules), to refine (or to purify), and, once these two goals had been accomplished, to fix (or stabilize and prevent future change) by publishing the rules of the language."

    "The specific rules of usage established – sometimes manufactured – by the eighteenth-century grammarians have a mixed record of survival in the late twentieth century. Most educated users of English take for granted and automatically observe the strictures against double negatives and double comparatives and superlatives. Repeated but not observed (or observed in writing only) are the rule against split infinitives and the distinction between 'between' and 'among'. Few native users, even in writing, employ 'shal'l for the first-person future or bother to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition."

    (Millward, C. M. 'A Biography of the English Language.' pp. 242-245)

  25. EAPlog said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:39 am

    [...] "pseudo-rules" (or what Language Log's Mark Liberman more entertainingly calls "Zombie rules"). When it comes to split infinitives, sentence-final prepositions or singular "they", [...]

  26. sayed said,

    June 6, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

    The AP Stylebook entry on "split forms" the Ray notes is consistent from at least 1984 (earliest edn of the full-size stylebook I have around here) to 2007. So at the least, I'd say there's a perception that infinitives and "compound forms" are covered by some of the same rules. (And I can't think of another reason why editors would read a linking verb and a predicate adj — "it is also common for editors to bumble other compounds" — as the sort of thing that needs to be corrected to "it also is common for …")

    Part of the problem is that the AP example doesn't give a very good idea of what makes a split "awkward." Here's the stylebook:

    Awkward: There stood the wagon that we had early last autumn left by the barn.
    Preferred: There stood the wagon that we had left by the barn early last autumn.

    But clumsy placement of time adverbs is a common feature of AP writing ("President Bush Wednesday vetoed …"), so AP's cure doesn't really address the flaw: Would "There stood the wagon that we early last autumn had left by the barn" be a preferred substitute too?

    Another problem is that "awkward" requires a value judgment. You (the rimrat) might think a split is preferred, but if you know the slot editor disagrees — or you both know that "Never split a verb" is the one "rule" that sank into your publisher's brain back in Kollidge — there's more to be gained by unsplitting the damn thing than by letting it stand.

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