Pressing the House of Commons swiftly

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There is a designated staff member whose job at The Economist is to make the magazine (my favorite magazine) look ridiculous by moving adverbs to unacceptably silly positions in the sentence. She is still at work. This is from the December 12 issue, p. 58, in an article about preparations for a referendum next year on whether Britain should abandon its membership in the European Union:

Most pollsters reckon a later vote is likely to boost the leave campaign. Avoidance of delay was a big reason why the government this week pressed the House of Commons swiftly to overturn a House of Lords plan to extend the referendum franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds.

But the writer almost certainly did not mean that the government engaged in swift pressing (if that is even possible). The apparent intent, as Robert Ayers pointed out to me by email (and I agree with him), was to claim that the government pressed the House of Commons to swiftly overturn the House of Lords plan. If the franchise-extension plan is left as an open issue the referendum itself might be delayed, which would give more time for the pro-exit folks to organize (the prime minister is believed to be pro-EU, hence against exiting).

It was about swift overturning, not swift pressing. The adverb has pointlessly been positioned where it can most naturally be understood as modifying the wrong verb.

Why this stylistic self-sabotage? It is because of a totally unjustified belief, due to 18th and 19th-century pontificators aided and abetted by 20th-century dimwits, that it is some kind of sin to place a modifier immediately before the verb of a to-infinitival complement. In every other kind of clause this is allowed, but the people who buy the antiquated nonsense about not "splitting the infinitive" there is just one kind of clause where it is supposed to be forbidden:

  • I hope they swiftly overturn the plan. [present tense]
  • By next week they will have swiftly overturned the plan. [perfect tense]
  • Please, swiftly overturn this plan. [imperative]
  • We should ensure that they swiftly overturn the plan. [subjunctive]
  • I am counting on their swiftly overturning the plan. [gerund-participial]
  • Let us swiftly overturn this plan. [bare infinitival]
  • I want them to swiftly overturn the plan. [to-infinitival]

It is sad to see The Economist continuing to make itself a laughing-stock, misplacing modifiers simply because of the cowardice its style guide recommends:

split infinitives are accepted by grammarians but irritate many readers. When a graceful alternative exists, avoid the construction: to show the difference clearly is better than to clearly show the difference. (Do not use the artificial clearly to show the difference.) When the split is unavoidable, accept it: He was obliged to more than double the price.

They even missed one once (I give the example here), and the sky didn't fall. But now they are back to their old ways, nervously shifting adverbs into places where it would have been better not to put them.

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