Better directly: unh?

« previous post | next post »

Anyone who loves language will surely cut a lot of slack for a magazine that will describe the Sunday Assemblies (increasingly popular non-religious Sunday gatherings of atheists in England) as "non-prophet organizations" (The Economist, 26 October 2013, p.34). It remains my favorite magazine, and its delicious puns are only part of the reason. But what the hell is going on with language like this (same issue, p.15)?

This newspaper has argued before that it is better directly to tax investors, workers and consumers.

Better directly? What does that mean? I had to go back a few words and re-read.

The sentence is, of course, another example of the editors' irrational insistence on avoiding the so-called split infinitive. They are actually recommending direct taxation, but have ordered the words in a perverse and stupid way.

The right place to put the adverb directly was immediately before the verb that it was supposed to modify: the verb tax. What they wanted to say was it is better to directly tax investors, workers and consumers. But the mental illness of prescriptive panic has such a firm grip on the minds of the style editors at The Economist that nothing can convince them: no collection of split infinitives from unimpeachably excellent literature down the centuries is sufficient to argue them out of their phobia. They think (delusionally) that their readers would think less of them if they ever put an adverb after infinitival to.

People have accused me of making this point too stridently and too often, but I don't think I have made it nearly forcefully or frequently enough. The fact that no one may listen to me as I howl truths into the unheeding wilderness does not prevent them from being truths.

Comments are closed.