The Economist finally comes around

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From Lane Greene at The Economist, "The ban on split infinitives is an idea whose time never came," with boldfacing by yours truly:

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW was once so angry with a subeditor that he complained to the newspaper. “I ask you, sir,” Shaw wrote, “to put this man out.” The cause of his fury? The editor had insisted on “correcting” split infinitives. “Set him adrift and try an intelligent Newfoundland dog in his place,” Shaw fulminated, “without interfering with his perfect freedom of choice between ‘to suddenly go’, ‘to go suddenly’ and ‘suddenly to go’.”

This spring a new edition of The Economist’s style guide is published*. Many of its changes are of a kind only a copy-editor would notice; but on an issue that has set teeth grinding for centuries, it marks a sea-change that Shaw would have appreciated. It says infinitives may be split.

While this strikes a blow for linguistic sanity, it is not an unmixed blessing. The Economist's prohibition of split infinitives within its pages has provided a steady supply of topics for blogospheric descriptivists (especially those with the initials "GKP"), who will now have to find something else to write about.

Economist still chicken: botches sentence rather than split infinitive (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
No-excuses split infinitive in the Economist (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
To more than justify the split infinitive (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
At last, a split infinitive in The Economist (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
Economist Sticklers trying to bug me (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
Active seeming: dumb grammar fetishism yet again (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
Rules that Eat Your Brain (Geoff Pullum on Lingua Franca)
The Economist Should Lighten Up and Split Some Infinitives  (Geoff Pullum on Slate)
Led astray by the no-split-infinitives fetish (Gabe Doyle on Motivated Grammar)
To offensively split infinitives (Stan Carey on Sentence First)


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

    "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lighted up again in our life-time …".

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 1:19 pm

    This seems like the stylebook equivalent of those anecdotes about die-hard Japanese soldiers stumbling out of the jungle on remote Pacific islands circa 1960, having finally accepted that WW2 was over.

  3. RP said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 2:44 pm

    Whilst the piece concludes that it is time "time to utterly and decisively reject" the ban on split infinitives, the style book is also said to prescribe that "since they annoy so many readers, where they can be avoided altogether, writers should do so". Surely, that is something rather less than an utter and decisive rejection. I feel certain that GKP will regard such continued pandering to the readership as unsatisfactory.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 2:55 pm

    "Pandering to the readership" is an interesting concept. If we (reasonably) assume that some fraction of the readership will be annoyed by split infinitives, whilst another fraction will be annoyed by a total avoidance thereof, then no matter what course the journalist takes, some fraction of his readership will end up being annoyed. That being the case, the style book's recommendation that "where [split infinitives] can be avoided altogether, writers should do so" seems altogether reasonable to me.

  5. Jamie said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 3:13 pm

    Wouldn't better advice be, "where a split infinitive is inappropriate do not use one."

  6. Barry Cusack said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

    The quotation from Bernard Shaw I found a little puzzling. Who exactly has the freedom: dog, sub-editor or journalist? GBS is quoted thus all over the internet. However, I also found this, which to my mind makes better sense:
    "I ask you, Sir, to put this man out. Give the porter orders to use such violence as may be necessary if he attempts to return, without, however, interfering with his perfect freedom of choice between "to suddenly go," "to go suddenly", and "suddenly to go". See that he does not come back; that is the main thing. And allow me, as one who has some little right to speak on the subject, to assure your readers that they may, without the slightest misgiving, use adverbed infinitives in any of the three ways given above. All they need consider is which of the three best conveys by its rhythm the feeling they wish to express." (
    This has the advantage of leaving the Newfoundland dog entirely undisturbed.

  7. RfP said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 3:56 pm

    I’m not so sure this is pandering to the readership, for whom a properly split infinitive is more idiomatic than an unsplit one in most circumstances, so much as pandering to the peevership—who are really only a handful, no matter how vocal they might be.

  8. Bathrobe said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 7:21 pm

    "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lighted up again in our life-time …".

    So the decision to allow split infinitives is equivalent to the start of WWI, which left 18 million dead. We certainly have a well-developed sense of drama.

    I'm mildly surprised that this one was not also quoted:

    "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 7:47 pm

    By the way, here's an 1834 printing of the 15th edition of Comly's book (supposedly originally from 1803 but I can't find an earlier one scanned online) to which the taboo has been traced. The no-split-infinitives rule is Rule 27. Rule 26 is no double negatives. Those with more time than I have can poke around and see what other rules are set forth and how they have been received by subsequent generations.

    Comly apparently originally wrote the book while teaching at shortly after its founding in 1799. It's now a quite venerable and reasonably well-known school by U.S. standards but in 1803 it was a heck of a long way from London and not all that far from the ragged frontier of the Anglophone world. Perhaps an odd place for such a powerful peeve to originate? Unless of course the notion had been "in the air" for some time previous to 1803, and this is just the earliest instance thus far discovered where it's explicitly committed to print, but one which remains subject to being antedated as more obscure pre-1800 texts make their way into searchable databases.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 8:01 pm

    Through the continuing wonder that is the google books corpus, anyone with internet access can also read all 645 pages of Comly's posthumously-published journals in this 1853 edition. Anyone with a LOT of free time could work through them looking for violations of the split-infinitive taboo and/or any other rules he set forth in his grammar textbook.

  11. Rubrick said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 9:53 pm

    I applaud the Economist's decision to take finally this step.

  12. Keith said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 5:10 am

    Now that this question has finally been put to bed, maybe the Economist's editors can sort out the messy hesitation between British and American usage of the verbs "protest" and "appeal".

    I'm sure that in this week's print version, I have seen both "protest against [a decision]" and "protest [a decision]".

  13. Levantine said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 11:47 am

    Keith, does it matter if both usages are intelligible to readers?

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    Levantine — I think it does. What matters is surely not whether or not a usage is intelligible to readers, but whether such a usage is likely to provoke an adverse reaction in them. For me (a Briton), to protest a decision is a pure Americanism, and one that I deplore when it finds its way into British speech/reporting/etc. We are "two nations divided by a common language", and long may it remain that way — I have no wish to to seek to influence how Americans speak or write, and I certainly have no wish for my language (British English) to mindlessly adopt Americanisms, as experience suggests it is increasingly wont to do …

  15. Levantine said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 12:43 pm

    Philip Taylor, I'm British, too, but I live and work in the US and am entirely comfortable moving between the British and American standards. I don't read the Economist, but I understand that its writers are from both sides of the pond, so perhaps it's not so much a case of "mindlessly adopt[ing] Americanisms" as it is a reflection of the contributors' varied backgrounds.

    I'm curious: Do you object to even very well-established imports such as "OK", "commuter", and "teenager"?

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

    J. W. Brewer: You can see Comly's rule back to 1811 in the grammar section of the Fourth Edition of his spelling book, which is copyright 1806 (for the first edition, I guess). It's Rule 26 there.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 1:14 pm

    Levantine : (to your final para./question). No. I object only to those adoptions (mindless ones, rather than those that meet a real need) that have come about in my lifetime. When born, I accepted the status quo; thereafter, when unnecessary change threatened, I resisted. Organisations are headed by individuals, not headed up; we protest against a ruling; programmes (and hours) have a start (or a beginning), not a top. I eat mayonnaise, not mayo; and milk is , not . Just a few that rile me — there are countless more.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 1:18 pm

    Sorry, that last lost the final pair : "milk is skimmed, not skim".

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

    The Economist does well with US readers/subscribers (I let my own subscription lapse some years ago, but I'm idiosyncratic) at least in part because of a remaining colonial-cringe attitude that persists among some subsets of the US population, 240+ years later, that British=Classy. (NB: "classy" is AmEng for BrEng "posh".) So it would imho be good marketing for the Economist to use stylistic conventions that will register as markedly British for its US readers as long as they create a pleasing aura of mild exoticism without being so extreme as to make the resulting prose difficult to parse. Avoiding peeves from the remaining UK readers of the publication would be a beneficial side-effect of this strategy.

  20. Levantine said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

    "OK" meets no need that isn't fulfilled by "all right"; why not strike if from your vocabulary and tell others off for using it too?

    Anyway, I can see you feel that "your" language is under assault, and no amount of reasoning is going to convince you otherwise.

  21. Bathrobe said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 3:49 pm

    Is "advocate for" also an Americanism, and does the Economist use it? It appears to have been gaining ground rapidly in the past few years.

  22. Bill W. said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 8:45 pm

    Things are seldom what they seem.
    Skim-milk masquerades as cream.

    See p. 20.

  23. Keith said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 2:21 am

    I don't object to a text being written in American English, but I dislike the inconsistency that I described.

    Part of the reason for having a style guide is so that writing is consistent within a publication with multiple contributors.

    Articles in the Economist are not signed, I think I remember reading that this is so that contributors cannot be easily identified and corrupted to introduce bias into their articles. This also should mean that all the articles should be equal in tone, vocabulary and grammatical construction; again, the style guide enforces this neutrality.

    Every now and again, some sloppiness creeps in, like in the article I read this morning on the way to work. In the sixth paragraph of "The Methane Mystery":

    One big worry is the Arctic. The soil their contains methane equivalent to 2.3 times all the carbon dioxide humanity has emitted since the 1800s.

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 10:50 am

    Question for scholars of peeves and their history: I have a vague recollection that for a long time the standard theory about the origin of the split-infinitive peeve was a wrongheaded attempt to conform English to Latin norms but seeing somewhere in the last few years (can't remember where but quite possibly on Language Log) a debunking contention that that was an urban myth. What's the best current thinking as to the actual original basis for the peeve in the minds of its early promoters? I found this sentence from Comly's memoirs (cited upthread) rather suggestive: this (the time referenced is 1794, and Comly has just finished less than two years of the study of Latin, interrupted by a yellow-fever epidemic): “Having previously no knowledge of English grammar, I could now readily apply the principles of the Latin to the English language.”

  25. BZ said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 11:40 am

    @J.W. Brewer,
    The only argument I heard is that Latin has no split infinitives because in Latin infinitives are single words. This was then transferred to English despite the fact that Englilsh infinitives are two words and that English "always" split them, and this was never an "innovation". Here's the thing, though. If Wikipedia is to be believed, English infinitives were also single words until early Middle English. In addition, there is no evidence that early two-word infinitives were split until much later. If so, it was indeed an innovation, apparently around the 14th century. Additionally, this usage apparently all but went away between 15th and 18th centuries, and gained considerable popularity in the 19th, which is also when the first objections were attested. So if all of this is true, Latin doesn't really have anything to do with it, unless it is the *longevity* of this peeve that is traceable to Latin.

  26. RfP said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 12:43 pm

    Anyway, I can see you feel that "your" language is under assault, and no amount of reasoning is going to convince you otherwise.

    And as stated, this is really about an idiolect, as Philip Taylor is only objecting to changes “that have come about in my lifetime.”

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

    @BZ, it strikes me that in former times one very common occasion for Anglophone students to write out English prose of formal register in a school setting was assignments to translate such-and-such passage of Latin into English. It seems plausible that conventionalized ways of doing that might have both (because of the somewhat artificial nature of the exercise and the circumstances under which it was done) been significantly more constrained by convention as to word order and various syntactic features than "regular" spontaneously composed English would have been, and that the particular somewhat artificial or contrained version of English used for translations out of Latin could easily get recharacterized as a benchmark against which other sorts of English prose should be measured, not even because of a conscious sense of the superiority of Latin but just because that was a style of writing psychologically associated with being in school and self-consciously generating sentences in a formal register.

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