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/.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The battle rejoined

I understand that there was some kind of football extravaganza over the weekend, which may have distracted some of you from the back-and-forth in Facebook over that exploded doctrine, the split infinitive.

Mignon Fogarty drew fire on her Grammar Girl page on Facebook for pointing out, yet again, that there is no legitimate foundation for the bogus rule against splitting infinitives, A couple of those comments:

A good writer/speaker does not use them. Man, no wonder my students find professional writing so hard!

I respectfully disagree with Grammar Girl on the issue of split infinitives. There is indeed a 'rule' or 'convention' which 'prohibits' them. It is certainly no myth.

You can see more of the same in her 2006 post on the same subject at her Web site, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing:

I have been studying (American) English since 1956, Latin since 1965, and Spanish since 1969.

I agree with those who have said that infinitives should never be split. Sorry, Grammar Girl, but your laxness on this matter is surprising and disappointing. Please change your mind, thus correcting yourself. [Contrary to what our modern world mistakenly thinks, there really are "right" and "wrong" actions in life.]


And this:

Most grammar texts still consider split infinitives incorrect. The English language has been butchered enough without resorting to putting everything into the vernacular. You might as well teach Ebonics or Sponics or whatever.

Either stick to the rules or shut up is my answer.


Some constructions that split infinitives can indeed be ungainly, but that does not mean that all such constructions are wrong. Many writers come up with maladroit metaphors, but no one concludes that all metaphors should therefore be banned. (Except maybe for Plato, who wants to have no truck with poetry in his nasty little Republic.)

What is on display in the comments — and it is profoundly discouraging that some appear to come from teachers — is an uninformed and dogmatic attitude toward language: “I don’t care about the history of the language or what linguists say or even what informed prescriptivists say. I was taught a rule, and that is the law, and anyone who disagrees with me is a barbarian who is tearing down all the standards of civilization. Shut up.”

It is rather the attachment to the split-infinitive superstition that stands in opposition to learning.

Écrasez l’infâme.