How wirelessly to hack

« previous post | next post »

You don't think the ridiculous split-infinitive avoidance contortions at my favorite magazine could have started being exaggerated just as a sort of private joke on me, do you? I have reported many times on the absurd syntax that The Economist is prepared to countenance rather than ignore its cowardly advice of its style guide ("The ban [on split infinitives] is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it"). A leader on internet security ("Breaching-point") in the Christmas double issue (December 24, 2016) tells us, in what I think is not just unstylish but actually a violation of normal English syntax:

At a computer-security conference in 2015, researchers demonstrated how wirelessly to hack a car made by Jeep, spinning its steering wheel or slamming on its brakes.

How wirelessly to hack ?? Unbelievable. (You can find the article online with a Google search on "how wirelessly to hack". As I write, it is the only hit: no one has ever written that misbegotten four-word sequence in the prior history of the world.*

Nobody who hadn't been driven into a state of nervous cluelessness by bad style advice could think that was the right order of words. Part of the reason is that how often functions as an initial modifier constituent of an adjective or adverb phrase.

If you consider the structure and meaning of how gratefully to acknowledge the gift, you will see what I mean. Asking how gratefully to acknowledge the gift is not asking how to acknowledge the gift; it is asking how grateful the acknowledgment should be. The how modifies the following adverb, gratefully; it can't be understood as modifying the verb acknowledge. To get that meaning, you put the adverb adjacent to the verb: how to gratefully acknowledge the gift. Unless you're clueless about how to build English sentences. And you're a Language Log reader, so that's really unlikely.

And the usual assumptions will apply to how wirelessly to hack : the problem is that how will be read as a modifier of wirelessly, slowing the reader down during a moment or two of puzzlement. Style guides are supposed to aid writers in constructing unambiguous sentences, not to force them into ambiguities that were readily avoidable!

In general, The Economist's articles are beautifully written. So why would they perpetrate a howler like writing how wirelessly to hack ? The second most plausible hypothesis is that they're trying to irritate me (and it did cross my mind once before that this might be their plan). But the most likely guess is that writers have trained themselves to shift adverbs leftward regardless of the normal principles of normal syntax (because they think the style guide tells them they have to, and they like their jobs), and the editors and proofreaders have trained themselves to accept these offenses against grammar (in the belief that they are upholding the standards of the magazine as laid down in the style book). Writers and editors alike have blinded themselves to the realities of the grammar of their native language, wrongly imagining that by doing so they are working in the interests of their readers.

* Only hours later there were dozens, but apart from the original they contained just this post and every page in the world that had already quoted it or used certain kinds of links to Language Log's current front page.

Comments are closed.