Secret appearances

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The Economist, in a leader last April about the Panama Papers revelation, which I really should have brought to your attention sooner (it fell through the cracks of my life), told us that "The daughters of Azerbaijan's president appear secretly to control gold mines."

They appear secretly? Where are these secret appearances? Are they scheduled in advance, or do they occur randomly? And how would a secret appearance help to control a gold mine?

Natural questions to ask. But we're barking up the wrong tree (though it's hardly our fault). The sentence is evidence that as recently as April this year The Economist was still engaged in its panic-driven, brainless struggle to ensure that infinitives are not split, whatever the cost in terms of intelligibility.

What they meant was that the daughters appear to secretly control gold mines. It's not about secret appearances at all; it's about secret control. (It's quite interesting to use Google to find out how rare it is to encounter the phrase appear secretly; there are a few, but they are most unusual, because one might have thought that the whole point of appearing would lost if it were done secretly. That which remains truly secret does not appear at all.)

I have tried to educate The Economist about their stupid phobia, but the people at the relevant editorial level would rather publish unstylish and incomprehensible sentences than give up their struggle to impose on English an unnatural syntactic restriction that literary evidence does not support.

It only makes things even sillier that not long ago the magazine had to admit defeat in one article. The unusual two-page obituary it published on David Bowie, when he died in January 2016, included the phrase "if you had outcast Ziggy, your leper messiah, to sexily show you the way." All attempts to shift the adverb sexily lead to sentences that are quite plangently worse, in specifiable ways; so for once the right decision was made.

That disposes of the notion that split infinitives just cannot be tolerated: at least once they have been, and the sky did not fall.

So reverting to type with the ridiculous "appear secretly" was just a pointless retrogression. I wish I thought it would turn out to be have been the last.

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