Words in Boxes

Nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Splitting Grammatical Hairs

I never wanted to write a monster post about grammar, and I'm pretty sure no one else wanted me to either. But here we go.

Amber, in a recent post, complains that many otherwise respectable publications — such as the Economist, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal — commit two cardinal grammatical sins: (1) splitting infinitives, and (2) splitting compound verb phrases.

Now, what I say next is meant with all possible respect.

Who cares?

I actually care about grammar. Having an agreed-upon set of rules so that people disconnected in time and space can agree on precisely what a sentence means is vitally important. No matter what kind of writing you're doing, grammar is indispensable for saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Anyone who writes is well-served by studying it.

But there are many rules of grammar that are unimportant, and in fact aren't actually rules at all. These prohibitions are two of them. Two additional false prohibitions are (3) ending a sentence with a preposition, and (4) beginning a sentence with a conjunction.

Each one of these constructions is acceptable. Often they are preferred to their alternatives. Spending energy splitting these particular hairs is at best a waste of time, and at worst actively detrimental to good, clear writing. And the experts agree.


Splitting Infinitives

An infinitive is the "to be" form of a verb (to drop or to contradict). When you split an infinitive, you place one or more words between to and the verb (to quietly drop or to directly contradict). Most of us have been told at one point or another, mostly by our high-school English teachers, never to do this.

The Chicago Manual of Style disagrees (§5.160):

Although from 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate the to from the principal verb.

Bill Walsh, copy chief of the national desk at the Washington Post, goes a bit further. Well, a lot further:

A lot of editors waste a lot of time and energy making editing changes that, if you'll excuse the disgusting imagery, do nothing but shove a rod up the backside of good, conversational writing.

Perhaps the best example of this is the un-splitting fetish. No matter how many knuckles have been whacked with rulers over the "split infinitive," grammar experts will testify that there is no rule — and never has been a rule — against inserting a word between the to and the verb in an infinitive (as in to boldly go where no man has gone before). Somebody somewhere made up this "rule" because infinitives were never split in Latin. Of course they weren't: In Latin, infinitives are single words.

Yeah! Grammar smack-down! Take that, editors!


Splitting Compound-Verb Phrases

A compound verb phrase is the combination of two or more verbs into a single verb phrase, for example would support and will go unchallenged. When you split the verb phrase, you place an adverb between these verbs, ending up with would generally support and will go increasingly unchallenged.

If you think these sound perfectly fine, you're not alone. If you were to unsplit these verb phrases, you would end up with generally would support and increasingly will go unchallenged. At least to my ear, these "corrected" constructions are harder to parse than the originals.

An even better example comes from Patricia T. O'Connor's Woe is I: you cannot change Your landlord expects to more than double your rent into Your landlord expects more than to double your rent and make any sense.

Bryan Garner, in his Garner's Modern American Usage, opens his entry on adverbs with the following (page 23):

Many writers fall into awkward, unidiomatic sentences when they misguidedly avoid splitting up verb phrases. Although most authorities squarely say that the best place for the adverb is in the midst of the verb phrase, many writers nevertheless harbor a misplaced aversion, probably because they confuse a split verb phrase with the split infinitive. H.W. Fowler explained long ago what writers still have a problem understanding: "When an adverb is to be used with [a compound] verb, its normal place is between the auxiliary (or sometimes the first auxiliary if there are two or more) and the rest. Not only is there no objection to thus splitting a compound verb ..., but any other position for the adverb requires special justification."

Garner then goes on to quote six more independent grammar authorities who agree. Apparently, this "rule" really gets his goat.

The Chicago Manual says the following (§5.160):

When an adverb qualifies a verb phrase, the natural place for the adverb is between the auxiliary verb and the principal verb. ... There is no rule against adverbial modifiers between the parts of a verb phrase. In fact, it's typically preferable to put them there. ... Recasting a sentence just to eliminate a split infinitive or avoid splitting the infinitive can alter the nuance or meaning: for example, it's best always to get up early (always modified get up) is not quite the same as it's always best to get up early (always modified best). Or an unnatural phrasing can result: it's best to get up early always.

In case it's not clear, that's Chicago Manual speak for "grammar smack down!"

Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

Bryan Garner opens his discussion of sentence-ending prepositions thusly:

The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar, in which a preposition was the one word that a writer could not end a sentence with.

Snap! Didn't see that one coming, did you?

A preposition is a word that links nouns or pronouns in a sentence, usually indicating a relationship between them. Typical prepositions include on, beneath, during, and with. Some consider placing one at the end of a sentence a faux pas, but really, why would you choose to write "a habit to which I want to stick" instead of "a habit I want to stick to"?

Garner continues:

But Latin grammar should never straitjacket English grammar. If the superstition is a "rule" at all, it is a rule of rhetoric and not of grammar, the idea being to end sentences with strong words that drive a point home. That principle is sound, of course, but not to the extent of meriting lockstep adherence or flouting established idiom.

The Chicago Manual (§5.169) concurs:

The "rule" prohibiting terminal prepositions was an ill-founded superstition.

And so does Winston Churchill:

That is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.



Beginning a Sentence with a Conjunction

Conjunctions are words such as and or but that join two clauses, phrases, or words together. Some people believe it's bad form to begin a sentence with one. But they're wrong. When you place a conjunction at the start of a sentence, you emphasize that sentence's relationship to the previous thought. Used properly, conjunction-initiated sentences improve the timing and dramatic structure of your writing.

The Chicago Manual states (§5.191):

[A] substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.

It goes on to quote grammarian Charles Allen Lloyd:

Next to the groundless notion that it is incorrect to end an English sentence with a preposition, perhaps the most wide-spread of the many false beliefs about the use of our language is the equally groundless notion that it is incorrect to begin one with 'but' or 'and.' ...[N]o textbook supports it, but apparently about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it. One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves.

So, yeah. Don't mess with him, either.

Concluding this Post

So there you have it. Overwhelmingly, experts agree that none of these four "rules" are really rules at all. But the most important take-away message is this: Do not annoy grammarians with spurious rules, or they will write snarky things about you in reference books.

In a sense, whether such-and-such a grammatical practice is technically correct is beside the point. You should never lose sight of the fundamental purpose of writing: to communicate ideas. Grammar is a convention users of a language have agreed upon to serve that singular purpose. Any "error" that does not introduce ambiguity or distract your readers is probably not actually an error, or at least not one you should worry about.

When you bend your diction to avoid breaking one of these "rules," you're actually doing your reader a disservice. Uncommon or overly-formal constructions are road-blocks that force your reader to stop and pay attention to your language rather than to your ideas.

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

You can also find me on Twitter, or if you're curious, on my old-fashioned home page. If you want to contact me directly, you can e-mail comments@wordsinboxes.com.