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.


  1. While I agree with you about the non-existent rule, I think it's unfair to bash the AP, which, I suspect, is merely following some pedant's rule that you haven't unearthed yet. God knows, the academy is filled with pedants who know only what their pedants taught them.

    I caught on to their game as an undergrad when one of them, noticing my short paragraphs and linking them and me to newspaper writing, said I should have 3 paragraphs to a page. (Double spaced, of course.)

    What kind of rule is that?

    But I digress, like a good pedant should. (I mean, as...)

  2. I don't think AP's entry is so bad, as the spirit of what they're trying to say is "make it easier for the reader," which we can probably all agree is an admirable goal.

    It's generally good practice to avoid awkwardness; they aren't saying to adhere strictly to the rule but rather to keep it in mind when the sentence becomes cumbersome or awkward.

    Or am I missing something?

  3. merely following some pedant's rule that you haven't unearthed yet.

    If Mr. McIntyre and the crew at Language Log hasn't unearthed that pedant's rule, it doesn't exist. Or, it exists only for the complete idiot that made it up.

    And the AP ought not to be perpetuating rules that are based on one or two stupid people. (ask me about "1900s" sometime)

    I finally got the crew I worked with at Information Week to STOP placing the "also" in the wrong place by blinding them with jargon.

    I would simply chant, "The adverb follows the auxiliary verb," and the never argued with me again.

  4. Words Into Type, p. 286:

    Adverbs within verbs. When an adverb is placed within a verb is should regularly follow the first auxiliary, not precede it — may safely be used, will surely come.

    faulty: The short a, for example, always must be modified
    Better: . . . must always be modified

    Faulty: There always have been circumstances . . .
    Better: There have always been circumstances . . .


    I think this rule, and that misconception, persist because there is a class of people who think "It can't be that easy. Good grammar, persnickety usage, HAS to be more complicated than that!"

  5. And we wonder why so many people have stopped reading newspapers...

  6. Thank you for trying again to get people to revolt against AP on this ridiculously applied "rule." Though it says "avoid awkward constructions," (with the assumption that not all supposedly "split" are awkward), it sadly leaves it up to whoever's making the decision at the paper to determine which are "awkward," and instead, they proclaim all to be. And then we get things like "The officer quickly had reached for his gun." UGH! It grates on my nerves every time I read it, which is every day since the papers still follow it. There are some novelists who have been poisoned by this nonsense as well. I can't stand it. It's not English! Thank you again. Keep up the good fight!

  7. I have always thought the same on this topic, John.

    In your last sentence, is "exploded" idiomatic, or is "exploited" meant?

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

  8. "Exploded," in the same sense that a hoax is exploded when it is revealed to be empty.

  9. Anyway, although either version of the wagons sentence may be appropriate for literary effects, a transparent prose style would demand something like "The wagon we left by the barn early last fall was standing [wherever it actually is now]."

  10. As a tech writer for military publications, I am always confronted with convoluted sentences that don't make much sense. Did that one?

    Anyway, its always been a point of contention to either follow rigid military style guides (the passive voice rules!) or just write the instructions as plainly as possible. We are always reminded that our readers may not read on the level of a high-school graduate, yet some of the text I get would baffle even the esteemed Professor McIntyre. Or make him laugh out loud.

  11. Is there a way to save my profile, so I don't have to type it in every time?

    the URL I link to is just to let people know what PCB is. I have no connection to the site other than I live here.

  12. You can't really change "There stood the wagon..." into "The wagon was standing [wherever]" because the function of the leading "There" is not adverbial-of-place, it's an explicit syntactic device. "There he is" is not the same as "He is there." Changing the syntax changes the meaning... transparent prose style or not.

  13. Wait, wait, I know this one!

    "There stood the wagon that we had early last autumn left by the barn, asshole."

    More seriously: "There stood the wagon. Early last autumn we left it by the barn."

  14. Couldn't you just add a couple commas? "There stood the wagon that we had, early last summer, left by the barn." Almost any awkward sentence can be improved with a comma or two, can't it? Commas are the Worcestershire Sauce of grammar.

  15. I'm a newspaper copy editor and have gotten the impression over the years that we're all keeping alive the pet peeves of our j-school professors. This is one of the peeves. I agree with your post.

  16. Is the silly prohibition against splitting phrases still applied to infinitives, too?

    An old favorite, famously corrected (wish I could remember the source) to fit the rule: " go where no man has gone before...boldly." Doesn't have the same momentum somehow!

  17. I can't tell you how much I agree with you on this. I was stunned the first time I ran into it. I have been a writer for nearly 30 years and just heard of this when I moved to Texas. NO ONE has been able to give me a single good reason for this "rule."

    I am happy I didn't go to j-school!

  18. The split infinitive is a hoax!!! It was erroneously fabricated by Henry Alford.