The "split verb rule": a fortiori nonsense

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John McIntyre has identified the "split verb rule" as "The Dumbest Rule in the AP Stylebook" (You Don't Say, 4/9/2016):

[A]s you look through Garner, Fowler, MWDEU, and language authorities whom you reckon by the dozens on the subject of the split infinitive, you will not find them treating what the AP Stylebook imagines is a problem with splitting a compound verb. That is because placing an adverb between the auxiliary verb and main verb is perfectly idiomatic English, and has been so for half a dozen centuries and more. The authorities do not identify a problem there. If the split infinitive bugaboo is nonsense, than the split compound bugaboo is a fortiori nonsense. John Bremner dismisses it in Words on Words: "Those who would ban splitting a compound verb are even more antediluvian than antisplitinfinitive troglodytes."

Since many reporters habitually observe this imaginary rule, I have to conclude that it is a linguistic artifice perpetrated by journalism schools, with the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook supplying aid and comfort.

It is time, past time, for this stylebook entry to go to a crossroads and lie down.

In my opinion, John is being unfair to troglodytes here: the "split verb rule", like the prejudices against sentence-initial conjunctions and singular they, is a relatively recent pop-prescriptivist invention, not an attempt to preserve an ancient principle.

Some past LLOG coverage of this strange idea, which barely qualifies as a "zombie rule" since it's not clear that it was ever really alive: "The split verbs mystery", 8/23/2008; "When zombie rules attack", 8/26/2008; "The true history of the split verb rule", 12/23/2012. As those posts demonstrate, authorities like the Fowler brothers and Brian Garner agree that the split verb rule is nonsense — so why the AP ever adopted it is puzzling, and why they cling to it is positively mystifying.

In the spirit of my chrestomathy of singular-they examples ("Linguistic Reaction at the New Yorker", 3/8/2016), I've compiled a small list of examples underlining the AP's illiteracy on this point.

Let me note in advance that it's either too easy or too hard to do this. It's too easy, because the allegedly forbidden post-auxiliary position in fact has been the favored position for adverbials in formal written English for several hundred years, and so any random esteemed source will contain many examples. But it's simultaneously too hard, because the AP stylebook, recognizing that they are promoting nonsense, has qualified their position to the point that it's effectively meaningless:

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.)  […]  Occasionally, however, a split is not awkward and is necessary to convey the meaning.

As John puts it,

So the verbs entry comes down to this: Try not to write awkwardly. Thank you, AP.

And so someone trying to salvage the AP's nonsense might respond "But these examples are not awkward!"

Indeed. In response, I can only note that in every case, alternative orders are possible (e.g."had been captivated easily" rather than "had easily been captivated"), and that the alternative orders in every case that I've looked at are very much a minority taste:

So anyhow, here's a modest list of examples, which any reader can add to at arbitrary length…

William Shakespeare, "Thy glasse will shew thee how thy beauties were":

The wrinckles which thy glasse will truly show,
Of mouthed graues will giue thee memorie,
Thou by thy dyals shady stealth maist know,
Times theeuish progresse to eternitie.

John Donne, "The Bait":

When thou wilt swimme in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channell hath,
Will amorously to thee swimme,
Gladder to catch thee, then thou him.

John Milton, The Reason of Church-government Urg'd against Prelaty:

That what the greatest and choycest wits of Athens, Rome , or modern Italy , and those Hebrews of old did for their country, I in my proportion with this over and above of being a Christian, might doe for mine: not caring to be once nam'd abroad, though perhaps I could attaine to that, but content with these British Ilands as my world, whose fortune hath hitherto bin, that if the Athenians, as some say, made their small deeds great and renowned by their eloquent writers, England hath had her noble atchievments made small by the unskilfull handling of monks and mechanicks.

John Dryden, The state of innocence, and fall of man:

We have been cozen'd; and had still been so,
Had I not ventur'd boldly first to know.

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy:

In this point he was entirely of Sir Robert Filmer's opinion, That the plans and institutions of the greatest monarchies in the eastern parts of the world, were, originally, all stolen from that admirable pattern and prototype of this houshold and paternal power;–which, for a century, he said, and more, had gradually been degenerating away into a mix'd government;–the form of which, however desirable in great combinations of the species,–was very troublesome in small ones,–and seldom produced any thing, that he saw, but sorrow and confusion.

Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London , that a young healthy Child well Nursed, is, at a Year Old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked , or Boiled ; and I doubt, that it will equally serve in a Fricasie , or a Ragoust .

Fanny Burney, Camilla:

Attracted by his fine person, and caught by the first flattery which had talked to her of her own, she had easily been captivated by his description of the sympathy which united, and penetrated by his lamentations at the destiny which parted them.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park:

Fanny's rides recommenced the very next day; and as it was a pleasant fresh-feeling morning, less hot than the weather had lately been, Edmund trusted that her losses, both of health and pleasure, would be soon made good.

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe:

There accompanied the seven Spaniards, one of the three savages that had formerly been taken prisoner; and with them also that very Indian whom the Englishmen had, a little before, left under the tree; for it seems, they passed by that way where the slaughter was made, and so carried along with them that poor wretch that was left bound.

James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson:

As this family will frequently be mentioned in the course of the following pages, and as a false notion has prevailed that Mr. Thrale was inferiour, and in some degree insignificant, compared with Mrs. Thrale, it may be proper to give a true state of the case from the authority of Johnson himself in his own words.

John Keats, "Fame":

Fame , like a wayward Girl, will still be coy
To those who woo her with too slavish knees,
But makes surrender to some thoughtless Boy,
And dotes the more upon a heart at ease

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein:

This man, whose name was Beaufort, was of a proud and unbending disposition and could not bear to live in poverty and oblivion in the same country where he had formerly been distinguished for his rank and magnificence.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick:

On the table beside him lay unrolled one of those charts of tides and currents which have previously been spoken of.

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights:

I believe Linton had laid it there: for she never endeavoured to divert herself with reading, or occupation of any kind, and he would spend many an hour in trying to entice her attention to some subject which had formerly been her amusement.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre:

The moment Miss Scatcherd withdrew after afternoon school, I ran to Helen, tore it off, and thrust it into the fire: the fury of which she was incapable had been burning in my soul all day, and tears, hot and large, had continually been scalding my cheek; for the spectacle of her sad resignation gave me an intolerable pain at the heart.

Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge:

They had previously been quite reckless in their behaviour; often making a great uproar; quarrelling among themselves, fighting, dancing, and singing.

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women:

Why should I complain, when we both have merely done our duty and will surely be the happier for it in the end?

George Eliot, Middlemarch:

They were old manufacturers, and had kept a good house for three generations, in which there had naturally been much intermarrying with neighbors more or less decidedly genteel.

R.L. Stevenson, Treasure Island:

The sixth had only risen upon his elbow; he was deadly pale, and the blood-stained bandage round his head told that he had recently been wounded, and still more recently dressed.

Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure:

He had just inhaled a single breath from a new atmosphere, which had evidently been hanging round him everywhere he went, for he knew not how long, but had somehow been divided from his actual breathing as by a sheet of glass.

Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer:

Tom enclosed the tick in the percussion-cap box that had lately been the pinchbug's prison, and the boys separated, each feeling wealthier than before.

Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes:

If he had only known what the chance of commonplace travelling had suddenly put in his way!

Arthur Conan Doyle, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:

I rang the bell and was shown up to the chamber which had formerly been in part my own.

Jack London, Martin Eden:

The crowd of disappointed urchins stared till the carriage disappeared from view, then transferred their stare to Maria, who had abruptly become the most important person on the street.

Willa Cather, My Antonia:

The cow had evidently been grazing somewhere in the draw.

H.P. Lovecraft, "At the Mountains of Madness":

With frequent changes of camp, made by aeroplane and involving distances great enough to be of geological significance, we expected to unearth a quite unprecedented amount of material—especially in the pre-Cambrian strata of which so narrow a range of antarctic specimens had previously been secured.

P.G. Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves:

I took it that she was beginning to wonder when the celebrities were going to surge round, and what had suddenly become of all those wild, careless spirits Rocky used to mix with in his letters.

G.K. Chesterton, The Scandal of Father Brown:

But such a thing as a scrub-bearded actor, in a job or even looking round for a job, has scarcely been seen in this world.

George Orwell, 1984:

Three months later FFCC had suddenly been dissolved with no reasons given.

Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz:

They had hardly been walking an hour when they saw before them a great ditch that crossed the road and divided the forest as far as they could see on either side.

Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind:

Names of graves where friends lay buried, names of tangled underbrush and thick woods where bodies rotted unburied, names of the four sides of Atlanta where Sherman had tried to force his army in and Hood's men had doggedly beaten him back.

Ernest Hemingway, For Whom The Bell Tolls:

One of them will surely be there even if the others are out inspecting the preparations for the attack.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby:

I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby's house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited.

Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle:

The sight of my moonlike rump had probably been too much for him.

Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge:

Heidi, relieved to be single, pursued a career in academia, having recently been given tenure at City College in the pop-culture department.



27 Comments

  1. Viseguy said,

    April 10, 2016 @ 7:49 pm

    Although I had all of the then-prevailing prescriptivist admonitions drummed into me by the Dominican Sisters of Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1950s, the split compound-verb rule was not among them. I was blissfully unaware of it until a Harvard-educated law-firm colleague brought it to my attention 30 years later. Being the dutiful associate, I tried to adhere to it, except when it sounded ridiculously stilted. (Plain stilted was fine.) Since English was a second or third language for most of our clients, it didn't much matter. Now, having acquired the wisdom that cometh with advancing age, I just go by what sounds best — and if it lands me in Hell, so be it.

  2. AJD said,

    April 10, 2016 @ 11:04 pm

    Hmm, so this might actually be pointing at something fairly interesting about people's syntactic knowledge, right? The prescriptive taboo against the split infinitive is a real prescriptive taboo of long standing. People attempt to learn, internalize, and obey the taboo on split infinitives. But because the infinitive-marker to occupies the same syntactic position in the clause as auxiliaries such as perfect have, people overgeneralize the prescriptive rule to apply to that as well. So the way people learn prescriptive rules isn't just in terms of the set of superficial strictures that is their actual content; the rules are learned in terms of the actual underlying syntactic grammar.

  3. Guy said,

    April 10, 2016 @ 11:27 pm

    "But because the infinitive-marker to occupies the same syntactic position in the clause as auxiliaries such as perfect have"

    Uh oh, now you've gone and said something controversial.

  4. Dan S. said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 12:07 am

    I think this "rule" is best described as "a rationalist innovation masquerading as linguistic conservatism".

    (That's MYL, in his singular-they post, to which he links, above.)

  5. Guy said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 12:37 am

    The "split verb" rule is especially crazy because post-auxiliary position is basically the most neutral spot for most adverbs. I've floated before, as a parody of the split infinitive rule, the idea of a split noun rule, which says nothing should intrude between a noun and its determiner (if someone challenges the rule, just say that nothing could come between a noun and its case inflection in Latin). But I'm not sure it's even a parody anymore. If people will swallow that "I've already done it" has some kind a problem with it, why wouldn't they accept that "the blue house" also has a problem with it? "The house that is blue" is so much more elegant, anyway.

  6. R. Fenwick said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 4:54 am

    @AJD:

    But because the infinitive-marker to occupies the same syntactic position in the clause as auxiliaries such as perfect have,

    It doesn't even do that, though. Such an assertion implies that the sentence "Would you prefer to have seen this movie elsewhere?" is ungrammatical, but it isn't.

  7. C said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 8:58 am

    Ah, but if you follow the zombie advice that adverbs should (almost) never be used, this non-issue won't arise.

  8. Michael Rank said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 11:14 am

    The "split verb rule" (banning e.g. "were carefully hidden" in favour of "were hidden carefully" or even ""carefully were hidden") is very much an American (journalistic?) bugbear unknown in the UK (I speak as a British journalist), although the split infinitive fetish is well known in the UK (probably a proud British export to the US). Can't help wondering if Canada also bitten by the split verb rule. I'm not clear whether Canada follows British or US spelling (colour/color, etc) but imagine in practice it's rather a mixture.

  9. Guy said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 11:57 am

    @C

    But the advice "adverbs should never be used" is itself an example of the split verb rule being violated.

    (Or is "will" the only modal auxiliary this rule applies to?)

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 12:06 pm

    In sentences such as "If the split infinitive bugaboo is nonsense, than the split compound bugaboo is a fortiori nonsense," I would prefer to stay with the tried-and-true "then." Call me antediluvian if you will.

  11. hector said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 2:25 pm

    Follow the money. The more "rules" to be enforced that run counter to normal English usage, the more work there is for editors to do. Zombie rules help keep them employed.

  12. Chris said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 2:58 pm

    Whenever I find an awkwardly split verb, if I ask the author why they did it, they *always* reply "because you're not allowed to split an infinitive."

    I don't think they know what an infinitive actually *is*.

    This apparently doesn't conflict with the fact that the same people often hear and say some of the constructions cited above and think nothing of it.

    My guess is that they firmly believe this is one of the rules that are "different" for formal writing. (This seems typical for "zombie rules" as well.)

    (BTW, if this isn't a zombie rule because it was never alive, perhaps that makes it a spontaneous-animation rule, though that isn't very catchy.)

    —————————–

    I am continually astonished at how many people seem to have a really deep fear, bordering on paranoia, that they will be caught somehow using "wrong" English and therefore being laughed to scorn. The guilt and shame seem to go all the way back to their first years of school. And I suspect this is one of the major reasons so many, many people hate to write.

    Of course this is also a likely reason why prescriptivists and language-peevers thrive.

  13. maidhc said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 3:15 pm

    A style guide is not the same as a grammar definition though. It's to make sure that all the authors (in this case, for AP) write in a consistent style.

    When a style guide says that you shouldn't do something, it's not necessarily because it's grammatically incorrect. It's just that some editor thinks that it would be distracting to the reader if some authors split infinitives and others don't, for example. In this particular case they are flying in the face of the usage of distinguished authors, as shown by the many examples above.

    But these are examples from literary works. It could be argued that news reports should follow a different style. Thus AP reports would stand out from all other writing because of their awkwardly structured sentences. (Think of the much-parodied sentences of 1930s Time.)

    The New York Times style guide says that all references to a male person after the first one should be Mr. So-and-So. They don't want "Mr. Trump" in one article, "Trump" in another and "the Donald" in a third, even though all would be grammatically correct. For consistency this rule applies even to the names of war criminals, serial killers, etc.

    [(myl) Are you really suggesting that "AP reports would stand out from all other writing because of their awkwardly structured sentences", if they followed the default English pattern of putting adverbs between auxiliaries and the rest of the verb phrase? Surely the truth is exactly the opposite of this.

    Thus in today's NYT we read "The man had apparently been living there since August, the German authorities said." Do you really believe that this is noticeably more awkward than "The man apparently had been living there since August, the German authorities said", or any of the other worse adverbial placements?

    And this has nothing to do with literature vs. news reports. I'll bet you a year's salary that the order "aux ADVERB" is more common in current quality news writing than the order "ADVERB aux". For example, in the past 12 months of the NYT index, "has|had apparently" beats "apparently has|had" by 176 to 89; "has|had clearly" beats "clearly has|had" 159 to 88; …]

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

    Guy: There must be an exception for "not" and "never". (That's "There must" in the sense of "I hope".)

    maidhc: "It could be argued that news reports should follow a different style. Thus AP reports would stand out from all other writing because of their awkwardly structured sentences."

    It could also be argued that they shouldn't, even if prestigious wire service AP said Friday that they should. I agree with you about what the result would be.

  15. BZ said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 4:02 pm

    @maidhc,
    How many people are going to consciously notice the absence of something and associate it with somebody's style? As long as they follow the broader rules of English and don't produce things that sound ridiculous or wrong, nobody will care (or know). If they don't, they'll be standing out in a bad way.

    On the other hand, *using* some fairly unusual (but not wrong) word or construction can give a publication a distinctive style. For example, I don't recall seeing the word "sclerotic" in any publication except Time Magazine. It's not a negative, but it's something you notice if you've been reading them for a while.

  16. Guy said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 5:17 pm

    @John Friedman

    I could see some cultist of the rule saying that "never should be" is better than "should never be" (never mind that it changes the relative scopes of the negation, temporal quantification, and modality), though you must be right that there's an exception for "not". At least, I really hope no one would argue for the necessity of some kind of "it's not the case that…" construction. Probably we're asked to accept that "not" is part of the alleged "compound verb". If we do get an exception for "never", do we also get an exception for "ever"? But then why not also "always" or "usually"? It seems like trying to be consistent will force so many exceptions that the rule disappears (as it should).

  17. Guy said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 5:19 pm

    Whoops, that was @Jerry Friedman. Sorry for that.

  18. Michael Watts said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 6:24 pm

    @Guy, Jerry Friedman

    Why would we need an exception for "never"? There's already a perfectly standard (if markedly archaic) construction which avoids splitting the verb: "never has the world seen such an event". It works with "should" too, and unlike "never should be" it is actually grammatical.

    ;D

  19. Guy said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 6:42 pm

    @Michael Watts

    But now you've "split" "the" verb with the subject! Though I guess subject-auxiliary inversion gets an exception too, unless the rule discourages interrogatives. ("they're weak and wishy-washy anyway, like the passive voice. You should write with strong declarative sentences!")

  20. Rebecca said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 8:11 pm

    @maidhc "When a style guide says that you shouldn't do something, it's not necessarily because it's grammatically incorrect. It's just that some editor thinks that it would be distracting to the reader if some authors split infinitives and others don't, for example."

    I understand that style guides do this, but I've always found this reasoning perplexing. I can understand enforcing consistency on things like how you refer to people, so that, say, one author's informality doesn't come off as carrying some unintended subtext. But I can't imagine even noticing whether some authors split infinitives and others don't. As long as it's all grammatical, I doubt I'd notice if someone happened to never use some other entirely grammatical form.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 10:43 pm

    Michael Watts and Guy: You're right that I missed some possibilities for avoiding splits with "never". I think, though, that you'd need a complete recasting with "The generalissimo said that such an event must never happen again," or "If Eliot had not read Symons, he might never have read Laforgue."

    Anyway, if this sentence is any guide, they do have an exception for "never":

    Secret Service boss vows no repeat of breach

    by ALICIA A. CALDWELL, Associated Press – 30 September 2014 10:49-04:00

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Secret Service Director Julia Pierson vows that a security breach like the Sept. 19 incident in which a man scaled the White House fence and made his way well into the executive mansion will never happen again.

    But maybe there are more exceptions, or maybe some writers ignore that guideline. From here:

    Trump still not doing well enough to guarantee nomination
    By Stephen Ohlemacher And Steve Peoples
    Associated Press

    WASHINGTON — […]

    Trump's rivals can only hope to stop him, forcing a contested convention with an uncertain outcome.

    From this article, page 3:

    Brown would always wave and say hello when she drove off to the mall, where she walked for exercise, Mallon said.

  22. Michael Watts said,

    April 11, 2016 @ 11:13 pm

    Rebecca —

    I believe the reasoning you find perplexing is perplexing because it's a euphemistic way of saying "we want to humor our readers who believe this is wrong". Nobody notices variation in grammatical forms, unless they were on the watch for one.

  23. John McIntyre said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 4:26 pm

    Mr. Lufkin, I have corrected the typo. Thank you for pointing it out.

  24. Adam F said,

    April 13, 2016 @ 8:13 am

    I think worth pointing out in fairness to Fowler ("Garner, Fowler, MWDEU, and language authorities whom you reckon by the dozens on the subject of the split infinitive") that he did not think there was anything wrong with split infinitives.

  25. Terry Hunt said,

    April 13, 2016 @ 8:45 am

    Further to maidhc, Rebecca and Michael Watts . . .

    Mr Watts is correct in that avoidance of constructions falsely believed "wrong" by a significant number of readers is prescribed in publishers' style guides in order to avoid annoying those ill-informed readers.

    One might imagine that the commercial implications of this would be negligible, as the anoyee will already have bought the publication in question. However, I used to be an editor of secondary school textbooks, whose adoption by any given educational authority is often dependent on the approval of a small committee which may well include lay members. If a single member of such a committee objects to a particular textbook on the grounds of it containing "split infinitives" or other false shibboleths, the publisher and author(s) stand to lose thousands to hundreds-of-thousands of sales.

    We had a close run thing in the case of one general science textbook I edited. A chapter on evolution included, as part of an evolutionary tree of life, a very small illustration of a naked human couple (representing the mammals). Though produced primarily for the UK where this wasn't an issue, the book (Part 3 of a series if I remember correctly) was also under consideration for adoption by Malta, and the authority involved refused to accept this tiny illustration on the grounds of decency. Fortunately it was possible to produce a variant printing showing a clothed couple especially for Malta, but if it had not been we would have lost the Maltese sales not just for that book, but for the entire series.

    That change involved only a single illustration, but if the objection had been to instances of text (such as "split infinitives") throughout the book, the necessary changes would have cost a great deal more and perhaps would not have been financially viable.

  26. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 13, 2016 @ 10:40 am

    Mr Watts is correct in that avoidance of constructions falsely believed "wrong" by a significant number of readers is prescribed in publishers' style guides in order to avoid annoying those ill-informed readers.

    This may well be the case here – I do remember seeing some style guides saying that no, this is OK, it's not a split infinitive, even if often mistaken for one; perhaps others have given up the fight. But in other cases I think style guides have just recommended a rule, in order to establish a consistent style, and readers have wrongly taken the guide to be giving the rules of English. As I understand it, this was how the that/which rule came to be seen in some quarters as a rule of English, which it was not originally meant to be.

    I think worth pointing out in fairness to Fowler ("Garner, Fowler, MWDEU, and language authorities whom you reckon by the dozens on the subject of the split infinitive") that he did not think there was anything wrong with split infinitives.

    Strunk, too, does not mention them (and uses 'infinitive' in a way that is inconsistent with the doctrine), and White, like Fowler, specifically says they are sometimes OK. What authorities do condemn them? I have an idea Gowers does. (A little while ago someone here claimed that no work generally seen as a grammatical authority condemns final prepositions; the ban on them is purely a folk tradition. I'm fairly sure the opposition to split infinitives is a bit stronger than that, but it's clearly often exaggerated.)

  27. Adam F said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 2:56 am

    Oops, missing "it's" in my previous post!

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