Monday, January 7, 2013

To boldly split an infinitve

There’s a sketch by British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb, in which an overstrung office worker disrupts a meeting by producing a massive gun and slaughtering each colleague in turn whenever they make a grammar mistake. Eventually, the last surviving colleague demands an explanation. “I can’t work with such ignorami,” says the gunman; whereupon his colleague points out that because in Latin the word “ignoramus” is a verb meaning “we don’t know”, the correct English plural is “ignoramuses”. The grammar nazi has no choice but to shoot himself in the head.

I mention this because of this once again doing the rounds on Facebook, which I reproduce for the purposes of analysis and comment:

There are lots of these cute little things floating around, but this one bears the signature of Grammarly, the makers of a piece of grammar-checking software and the provider of a service that will instantly check your “writing for grammar, punctuation, style, and much more”. I don’t worry too much about the Oxford comma after “style” — that’s acceptable punctuation and perfectly good standard American English. I do worry slightly about the all-caps and extraneous exclamation marks that litter their Facebook page (as in: “SHARE your tips in the comments below!”). Of course, these rules didn’t originate with Grammarly: they were originally printed in the June 1986 issue of Writers’ Digest. (Ironically, I found this information at, the official website of the Plain Language and Information Network, which misspelled the name of publication as “Writers’ digest”.)

Now, since I do advertise my own proof-reading services, I have to declare my vested interest here, although I don’t think we’re fighting for the same clientèle. But I do know what I’m talking about. I have, however, long been cured of my tendency to correct people’s mistakes in forum posts, Facebook posts, text messages and the like. There’s a big difference between writing a magazine article and writing a tweet, and it turns out to be a mistake to hold non-professional writers to the same standards you struggle to keep to yourself. It’s like finding fault with your homemade cake because it doesn’t taste the same as one baked by a pastry chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

To be sure, some basic care and thought is required: I’m sure we’ve all seen the one with the fluffy sea mammals in a disco accompanied by the line “Stop clubbing, baby seals”. But as long as the message is immediately clear, and it’s not for professional publication, the primary purpose — conveying a message — has been fulfilled. Everything else is a bonus.

That is why if you see me correcting somebody in public, it’s only ever because that person has sought to correct a third person, often unfairly. In that spirit:

The introductory sentence may have been a deliberate attempt at irony; in case it isn’t, the word “learnt” should of course be replaced by “taught”.

Rule 2: This is a myth: terminal prepositions have long been a feature of English and may go back to Anglo-Saxon times. This rule was dreamt up by John Dryden out of thin air, and no grammarian before or since has ever insisted on it.

Rule 5: Having admonished us for not using everyday speech in rule 4, Visco uses the word “eschew” instead of “avoid”.

Rule 6: Parenthetical statements, which need not be between parentheses, often convey additional information important to aid understanding. The clause between the commas in the previous sentence is a special kind of parenthetical statement known as a non-defining relative clause.

Rule 7: Another popular myth with no basis in fact. As with rule 2, no authority is against the splitting of the infinitive: even Fowler, that most conservative of grammarians, merely suggests it should be avoided if it doesn’t do too much violence to the style and structure of the sentence. It would be hard to recast a sentence like “It is illegal to sexually harrass women in the workplace” without either changing the meaning (“It is illegal sexually to harrass women in the workplace”) or making the sentence sound clumsy and unnatural (“It is illegal to harrass women sexually in the workplace”).

Rule 8: True; but these days, even in formal writing, avoiding contractions completely can result in stilted English.

Rule 9: True to a point. If you are using foreign words and phrases to replace perfectly good English words, you will look like a pompous bore. But there are many foreign words and phrases English could not easily do without: among them schadenfreude, hinterland, bazaar, pièce de résistance and rendezvous, to pick a tiny handful at random.

Rule 10: This should usually be restated as: “One should never overgeneralize.” It is simply not possible to discuss many issues without some degree of generalizing. The statement “Americans speak English as their mother tongue” is a generalization, as many Americans don’t. But if I am making a general point about which languages are commonly spoken in which countries, it is understood that, for the sake of brevity and readability, I will be generalizing.

Rule 12: It depends on the comparisons you are making and why you are making them. In creative writing, it is certainly true that metaphors are preferred over similes; but must we then censure Shakespeare for writing, “Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night / Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear”? And of course in non-fiction, comparisons are the bread-and-butter of explanatory texts: the information that the tongue of a blue whale weighs as much as an elephant helps us grasp just how massive a blue whale is.

Rule 13: That seems fair enough. But then:

Rule 18: Why?

Rule 19: This is rule 12, reloaded. So much for rule 13, then.

Rule 20: The passive voice is very useful when the identity of the agent is unknown or irrelevant. In non-fiction: “The Himalayas were formed about 50 million years ago.” In crime fiction: “The victim had been beaten unconscious, tied up with rope, shot and left to die in a disused warehouse.”

Rule 21: This one needs qualification, especially in light of rule 4.

Rule 23: Rhetorical questions are very powerful and effective rhetorical devices (hence the name) which should, to be sure, be used sparingly. But in argumentative writing and motivational speeches, they are an indespensible tool if you want people to come around to your way of thinking. And let’s face it, who doesn’t want people to come around to their way of thinking? Even two thousand years ago, Jesus used rhetorical questions, as in Matthew chapter 6, verse 27: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

And really you don’t need to worry about pandering to the self-appointed grammar police, who don’t always know the grammar any better than you do. In all non-professional writing, just check that your writing is clear, unambiguous, and says what you want it to say. Mistakes happen, and anyone who claims that they can’t understand your sentence about Paris being the “capitol” of France is either lying or criminally stupid.

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