John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Damn you, AP Stylebook

An editor asked me yesterday what I thought about the old “split verb” rule, and I managed to cut short the rant before spittle started gathering at the corners of my mouth. But the “split-verb” prohibition is bogus. I have carried on about in workshops, lectured my students, and denounced it in this blog. No reputable authority upholds it, but it does not go away, and I have identified an accessory to this crime against English.

This long-held erroneous belief among journalists is that writers must not place an adverb between an auxiliary verb and the main verb. Here is the entry under verbs from The Associated Press Stylebook, the latest edition of which coincidentally arrived at my house yesterday:

SPLIT FORMS: In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb (to leave, to help, etc.) or compound forms (had left, are found out, etc.)

Awkward: She was ordered to immediately leave on an assignment.

Preferred: She was ordered to leave immediately on an assignment.

Awkward: There stood the wagon that we had early last autumn left by the barn.

Preferred: There stood the wagon that we had left by the barn early last autumn.

Occasionally, however, a split is not awkward and is necessary to convey the meaning:

He wanted to really help his mother.

Those who lie are often found out.

How has your health been?

The budget was tentatively approved.


The “exceptions,” notice, are all idiomatic English, and I think that just about any editor would have identified There stood the wagon that we had early last autumn left by the barn as awkward without any assistance from the Associated Press.

Yet year after year the AP Stylebook and its slavish adherents persist in maintaining this erroneous rule.

If you don’t believe me, check the Never split a verb phrase entry under Superstitions in Garner’s Modern American Usage:

“Because of their misconception as to what a split infinitive really is, some have reached the erroneous conclusion that an adverbial modifier must never be placed between parts of a compound phrase, with the result that they write in such an eccentric style as ‘I greatly have been disappointed’ instead of writing naturally ‘I have been greatly disappointed.’ R.W. Pence & D.W. Emery, A Grammar of Present-Day English 329 n.,69 (1963).

[You noticed I suppose, the never in that sentence. Did you flinch?]

“With a compound verb—that is, one made with an auxiliary and a main verb—the adverb comes between auxiliary and main verb (He will probably telephone before starting / I have often had that thought myself / The clock is consistently losing five minutes a day).” Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage 53 (1966).

Or have a look at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

Copperud 1970 1980 talks about an erroneous idea widespread among newspaper journalists that adverbs should not separate auxiliaries from their main verbs (as in “you can easily see” or “they must be heartily congratulated”). This bugaboo, commentators agree, seems to have sprung from fear of the dread split infinitive. ... Copperud cites five commentators on the subject, all of whom see no harm in placing an adverb between the parts of a verb, and one of whom (Fowler 1965) prescribes such placement. Fowler (under placement of adverbs) has a long and detailed discussion, complete with numerous examples in which the adverb has been improperly (to his mind) shifted so as to avoid the split. Since dividing the auxiliary from the verb with an adverb has been approved at least since Lindley Murray 1795, it would seem that Fowler is justified in calling the avoidance a superstition.

Do I need to hit you over the head with those numerous examples from Fowler? Or will you, dammit, cave in and begin to write English instead of journalese?

And you, AP Stylebook, shame, shame for perpetuating a non-rule that has been exploded for decades.