And a grammar grouch in Switzerland

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The Economist this week publishes a letter (albeit tongue in cheek) from a real dyed-in-the-wool prescriptivist grouch, writing from Switzerland. (Switzerland! "They had five hundred years of democracy and peace," snarls Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man, "and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!") The letter-writer (note the nominative-case pronoun in his absurdly pompous last sentence) is grumbling about sentence-initial coordinators in the magazine's pseudonymous column on American politics by "Lexington" two weeks before:

SIR — And I thought that The Economist followed its own "Style Guide". But Lexington set a new record for the number of sentences starting with conjunctions (November 7th). But only 12. And I suppose some people appreciate such puerile prose. But not I.
Berne, Switzerland

Two things are notable here. One is the charge that it is "puerile" to write with initial coordinators. That is where the old prohibition comes from, I would speculate: elementary school teachers fed up with reading compositions that go "In my summer vacation I went to camp. And it was so fun. And we played baseball. And we went swimming…" As Arnold Zwicky once noted in a Language Log post that bears re-reading, teachers seem to follow a ridiculous zero-tolerance policy that says if they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all.

The other point to note is that the trick Riese wanted to play depended on his finding a way in which his entire letter could plausibly begin with a coordinator. And he managed it, cleverly (though self-undercuttingly). There is a sort of conversational snowclone for expressing indignant exclamations of disavowal, exemplified by utterances like And to think I nearly married that jerk!, or And I thought you were my friend!. Spotting that it would be possible to open with an expression of that sort was the tricky bit; from there it was plain sailing to begin each new sentence with but or and to complete his little literary joke.

One other thing. I may have overlooked something, but I was not able to find in the online version of The Economist's style guide any reference at all to not beginning sentences with coordinators (conjunctions). I wonder if Marc Riese could be one of that large class of people who have assumed without checking that usage and style guides always contain disapproving remarks about all the classic grammar bugaboos. Virtually no serious usage or style handbooks assert that the split infinitive is to be avoided (The Economist's is unusually conservative in this respect, because it does contain that recommendation). And not many are dumb enough to retail a baldfaced prohibition on sentence-initial coordinators. It is far easier to find deluded grammar-gotcha specialists like Mark Riese who believe initial coordinators are a violation than it is to find usage books that are crude enough, and blind enough to what occurs in decent literature, to actually say that.

Hat tip: Thanks to Donnchadh Mitchison for pointing out the letter to me as soon as his copy of The Economist hit his doormat.


  1. Michael said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    The entire zero-tolerance issue is worth thinking about. As the foot-in-the-door type research ( the social psychological equivalent of this problem) shows, once the foot is inside, the rest of the body follows. Similar arguments have been made concerning "just say No!"… Unfortunately we don't have a useable calculus of the costs incurred by being either on the zero-tolerance side of the argument or on the "down with prescriptionists" side.

  2. Karen said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    He should have begun with "And here I thought" or even "And to think that I thought"… Those are better, don't you think?

  3. nascardaughter said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    As Arnold Zwicky once noted in a Language Log post that bears re-reading, teachers seem to follow a ridiculous zero-tolerance policy that says if they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all.

    Eh. In elementary school, maybe. Of course all school teachers are not actually the same.

  4. Nathan Myers said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    The Economist's is unusually conservative in this respect, because it does contain that recommendation

    This is a curious use of conservative. I am used to, in other contexts, the equation of "conservative" with "idiotic", but I don't think that is precisely what was intended here. It seems, here, to suggest something like "wedded to nostalgia for delusory past", or perhaps "self-satisfied over imagined superiority for successfully observing spurious rules others fail to perceive".

    The distinction between these and "idiotic" is indeed fine, but if there is any place for fine distinctions, this has to be it.

    [I don't use "conservative" to mean "idiotic"; I use "idiotic" for that. Here "conservative", applied to usage advice, means "limited in the degrees of freedom admitted", i.e., "cautious and restrictive". The fact that it is an error to think the split infinitive was at one time ungrammatical (it appears never to have been) is a separate matter: I take usage advice to be more conservative if it warns you off even familiar locutions like "to actually see it" or "what he was thinking of", and less conservative if it acknowledges that these are OK. —GKP]

  5. Nick Lamb said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

    Nathan, it reads as a perfectly normal use of the word conservative to me. My dictionary offers (2) moderate or cautious, giving the example "a conservative estimate". By recommending against splitting infinitives the Economist is cautious, sometimes splitting can confuse the reader and it will thereby avoid the confusion. Other publications are more liberal, relying on the author (or the sub-editors) to know whether the reader will be confused, whether by a split infinitive or anything else.

  6. Kelly McCluskey said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

    I'm wondering what the diachronic situation with coordinators is, in particular "but". A decade ago I had a proofreading/copywriting job for a children's book publishing company- my boss was a pre-baby-boomer grammar battle-axe who slashed away at my but-initial constructions with a red pen fury. After realizing that I couldn't easily create copy that both conformed to this draconian rule and another edict that sentences should contain minimal clause structure and short word counts. Naturally I fought back by collecting a 'but file' in a prominently labeled manila folder, which I left rather obviously on my desk when I left. It was sometime after the point where I had collected examples from Dickens and the Gettysburg Address that the rule was mysteriously rescinded. This was in the early days of internet and it always amazes me how a simple Google search has replaced this 'amassing of evidence' procedure.

  7. Nathan Myers said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

    Nick: That would be fine if there were a single English-speaker on God's green earth who could be confused by a split infinitive. (In principle someone with brain damage might be troubled by various grammatical complexities, but coping with infinitives would be among the least of their problems.) Perhaps this is a case where "conservative" and "radical" have come to mean the same thing, in the same sense as the terms are lately applied to U.S. Federal judges. Or, perhaps you are suggesting they are cautious about arousing the ire of snide Swiss prescriptivist correspondents? We can all see how well indulging them turns out.

  8. Layra said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 3:50 am

    Nathan: Prescriptivism isn't about preventing confusion, and being conservative in the sense used here isn't about necessity, nor is it about idiocy. "Unusually conservative" here is specifically "unusually cautious and restrictive about what constructions are allowed", as compared to other publications about grammar. It's an objective fact, not a judgment of the writer's abilities to reason.
    Maybe the caution is due to fear of ambiguity; maybe the Economist is just being snooty. But the motives behind it and the logic behind it (or lack thereof) are not connotations of "conservative"; rather, those are judgments that you are making outside of the text.

  9. Keith M Ellis said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 5:10 am

    Incidentally, via the commentary track (IIRC) of "The Third Man", Orson Welles ad-libbed that line.

    [Interesting sidelight on a remark I couldn't resist stuffing into the post (I can resist anything but temptation). Last night I was out with Barbara, and our friends the computational linguists Mark Steedman and Bonnie Webber, seeing Mr. Arkadin at the Edinburgh Filmhouse. A fascinating, chaotic blend of marvellous Wellesian scene composition, ridiculous 1950-ish overacting, dreadful sound quality, blotchy film, atmospheric noir scenes, absurdly heavy makeup, quirky character performances, hopeless comedy scenes… The maker of The Third Man and Citizen Kane in his declining years, trying recapture the days when his genius was showing itself more clearly. Sad and silly at the same time. It worked as a conversation piece; we talked about it for an hour or more afterwards. —GKP]

  10. David Cantor said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 8:49 am

    And Orson Welles' line perpetuates an old misunderstanding. Cuckoo clocks originated in the Black Forest, not in Switzerland. Similarly, Lederhosen are common in Bavaria, but rarely seen in Switzerland. But mountains, trees, German speakers – what's the diff?

    [Yes, of course: the line is a classic example of straightforward national/ethnic stereotyping. It doesn't need to have a scintilla of truth to do its dirty work. It was a remarkably successful piece of abuse in this particular case. And as I said (in my previous intervention in these comments), I just couldn't resist popping in the parenthesis, especially with a plan to go out the same evening and watch a digitally restored Orson Welles movie. I don't really think Marc Riese is likely to turn out to be a Lederhosen-clad, cuckoo-clock retailing, yodelling, alpine horn-playing, picture-book Swiss national whose usage conservatism is rivalled only by his opposition to women's suffrage and citizenship reform. —GKP]

  11. Nick Lamb said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

    “Nick: That would be fine if there were a single English-speaker on God's green earth who could be confused by a split infinitive.”

    That sounds like a challenge. Perhaps one of the Language Log regulars would like to rise to it. We know that in many cases we can confuse a reader by taking two words whose sense depends on one another and moving them far enough apart in a sentence that the reader loses track. How sure are you that we can't move "to" far enough from a verb to achieve this?

  12. Nathan Myers said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    I don't use "conservative" to mean "idiotic"; I use "idiotic" for that. Here "conservative", applied to usage advice, means "limited in the degrees of freedom admitted", i.e., "cautious and restrictive".

    Given the violence done in the last half-century to the word "conservative" by conservatives, maybe "restrictive" is less likely to generate confusion.

  13. Richard Sabey said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

    @Nick Lamb. Challenge: Fowler, in his wonderful article "split infinitive" in MEU, used "Our object is to further cement trade relations" as an example of a sentence which would be rendered ambiguous if the adverb "further" were moved, but the FAQ of the Usenet newsgroup alt.usage.english points out that Fowler's sentence itself is ambiguous: it might mean "…to promote relations with the cement trade". But then the cause of the ambiguity is not the split infinitive but the fact that each of the words "further" and "cement" has 2 meanings as 2 different parts of speech. No, Nick, I can't think of an ambiguous split infinitive which is ambiguous because of the split infinitive.

    @Layra On the contrary, one thing that can be done by prescribing is preventing confusion: showing writers how certain constructs can confuse readers, and showing them how to express their intended meaning in a way that doesn't confuse.

  14. Nathan Myers said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

    Nick: Any construct can be made confusing by inserting a long enough run of unrelated words in the middle. If you do that, the confusion is caused by the run. The Economist has not forbidden inserting runs of unrelated words into coordinated constructs. It is, instead, forbidding a familiar construct composed of three words. The restriction cannot reduce possible confusion, because the construct does not introduce any, but avoiding it can. We've seen plenty of examples of awkwardness caused by such avoidance.

    I can't see any alternative to the explanation that they are trying to minimize hectoring by mis-educated switzers and their ilk.

  15. Bob Calder said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

    "But Ned, I thought you were my friend." is my favorite Peter quote from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea with Kirk Douglas.

    You must hunch over just a bit and look at the other person with one eye when you say it.

  16. Steve said,

    December 1, 2009 @ 8:16 am

    I have just blown the dust off my printed copy of the Economist Style Guide, and can find no such proscription. But it does allow prepositions at the end of sentences. The only thing that sentences must not start with is figures.

  17. jamessal said,

    December 1, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    Hat tip: Thanks to Donnchadh Mitchison for pointing out the letter to me as soon as his copy of The Economist hit his doormat.

    This just reminded me, I'd been meaning for some time now to forward you this misguided piece of pedantry about "may" and "might" and the subjunctive from the September 10th LRB letters page:

    Is it just me?

    Am I the only person in the English speaking world who knows that the preterite of ‘may’ is ‘might’, an auxiliary verb used in the past subjunctive and in its verbal form without any other function in the English language? While the LRB is singularly free of the split infinitive, too often its contributors appear not to know the difference between ‘might’ and ‘may’ or between the indicative and subjunctive moods.

    The issue of 9 July featured a photograph of a British soldier reading the London Review. The caption contained the sentence: ‘It would be nice to imagine, however, that the army’s own hard-pressed recruiters might exploit it’ – the photograph – ‘as suggesting the opportunities for the mind’s improvement that may come up in the empty intervals between the gunfire.’ The ‘might’ should be ‘may’, as it refers to the future. But I would have written the sentence differently in any case because the subjunctive mood is wrong. There is a wish in the phrase ‘it would be nice to imagine,’ and what is wished for is a fact: that the army’s recruiters exploit the photograph in the intervals between gunfire. The indicative mood is used for facts. Why not: ‘It would be nice to imagine, however, that the army’s own hard-pressed recruiters exploit it in the opportunities for the mind’s improvement that come up in the empty intervals between the gunfire’? ‘Might’ and ‘may’ should be avoided where unnecessary, but my essential point is that they should never be used interchangeably.

    It’s a hard life.

    Patrick Power
    Raheny, Co. Dublin

  18. Nicholas Waller said,

    December 1, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    Minor nit on the green subthread… Orson Welles didn't "make" The Third Man, he was an actor in it, and one who went AWOL some of the time. It was directed by Carol Reed, who went on to direct, among other things, Oliver!, in which he cast a nephew also called Oliver.

  19. arc said,

    December 1, 2009 @ 10:13 pm


    We do know people object to split-infinitives, so I think saying that a publication with a rule against split infinitives could be said to be conservative in the sense of being cautious (to avoid people objecting to one's grammar). I also think you hit the nail on the head earlier when you mentioned adherence to 'spurious rules'. Not wishing to go beyond established rules is conservative, the fact that in a case of a publication having a rule against split infinitives the rule was never established is beside the point – the motivation is to stick to the rules, which is a conservative behaviour, they're just wrong about what the rules are (or were).

    The connection between this usage and the political usage of 'conservative' is obvious (one could also in the specific example point, as you indicate, to nostalgia for the (fictitious) days of yore when people of good breeding never had bastard children or split their infinitives), but 'conservative' in the sense of 'sticking to the established conventions' (or 'not rocking the boat') clearly has a healthy use outside of politics, too. A conservative dresser doesn't (necessarily) dress like a Conservative (or an idiot), for example.

    Speaking of non-political useage of 'conservative', Nick has already pointed out that 'conservative estimates' has nothing to do with conservative politics, and in fact none of the entries first page that Google comes up with for 'conservative estimates' seem to be especially to do with conservative politics.

    For 'conservative' on its own, naturally the political usage dominates google, but in the first 10 pages we have:

    *) "The Boehm-Demers-Weiser conservative garbage collector can be used as a garbage collecting replacement for C malloc or C++ new. "

    (I was expecting to find something like this, but I was surprised to find it listed as the first non-political use)

    *) "But some of the greatest and most lucrative innovations are essentially conservative." from an article entitled "Conservative Innovation".

    *) "This paper deals with conservative logic, a new mathematical model of computation which explicitly reflects
    in its axioms certain fundamental principles of physics."
    from a paper called "Conservative Logic"

    *) "Conservative Treatment of Phimosis: Alternatives to Radical Circumcision"

    These are a bit difficult to understand if one supposes that 'conservative' is synonymous with 'idiotic', or is somehow necessarily connected with politics.

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