Editing wars at London Bridge Street

« previous post | next post »

As of the time of writing, you only get one hit if you ask Google to show you all the pages on the web containing the word sequence in order legally to minimise. That lone hit leads you to an anonymous leader in The Times (there is a paywall) in which this sentence occurs:

Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.

The highly unnatural syntax has the hallmark of having been created or edited by someone who would rather poison a puppy than allow an adverb to intrude between infinitival to and its following plain-form verb. But in this case there is more to the story.

Through contacts at The Times I have managed to find out who wrote that leader (I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you). I have communicated with him, and — brace yourself for a shock — he did not write this sentence in that form. What he wrote, of course, was Companies are gaming the system in order to legally minimise their tax liability.

What makes this even more ironic is that The Times has a weekly language column written by Oliver Kamm. Oddly, it is titled "The Pedant", despite the fact that Kamm has published a fine book on language called Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English, with a title so sophisticated that only those with a classical education will understand it, since accidence is now universally called inflection. He is the opposite of a pedant). On January 14, Kamm's column was headed: "There's no grammatical objection to split infinitives." Kamm was quoting Language Log, of course, citing an example I pointed out in The Economist, and he fully endorses the view I expressed when I discussed it on December 28th.

So at one desk in The Times's office building at No. 1 London Bridge Street sits Oliver Kamm — a man so sophisticated and intelligent that he reads Language Log — writing columns arguing for good syntactic sense; and at some other desk, perhaps nearby, also drawing a salary (much less justifiably), sits a subeditor with a green eyeshade and a brain the size of a walnut, moving adverbs from positions where they modify what they are supposed to modify (to legally minimize) to positions where they don't even sound like vaguely reasonable English (in order legally to minimize).

Listen: I keep reading articles saying that soon all sorts of jobs — doctor, lawyer, long-distance truck driver — are going to be taken over by computers. And although I'm skeptical, I can certainly say that moving adverbs one word to the left is a job that could be taken over by a computer. This command (using the Unix sed stream editor, which is there on all Macintoshes and Linux machines) will take in order to abcly xyz, where abc and xyz are arbitrary strings of lower-case letters, and change it to in order abcly to xyz, just in case unnatural word order is what The Times really wants:

sed 's/in order to \([a-z]*ly\) \([a-z]*\)/in order \1 to \2/g'

There. Just run that over everything before it goes in the paper. It could easily be generalized to cover all sorts of other constructions. Computational linguists could readily fix it up to apply to all verbs in infinitival complements, and other adjuncts than just -ly adverbs. So let's do that, and liberate the human editors who currently waste their very limited intracranial resources by doing this sort of nonsensical manual work. They can perhaps be set to more useful tasks, like filling the coffee-bean bins and milk tanks in the coffee machines.

Later we can just quietly erase the editing commands that replaced the subeditors, and get back to the practice of letting sophisticated writers position their adverbs wherever they think the sense of the sentence demands. But that will be in the far future, when interstellar travel is commonplace and superstition about "splitting the infinitive" has finally died out.

Comments are closed.