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Friday, June 18, 2004
Old jokes are the most reliable, and old controversies are the most likely to get people going.

Which is why the split infinitives battle is the pedant's all-time favourite.

We were going to show restraint and strength of character and resist all temptation, until the latest edition of Journalist, the NUJ's house magazine, managed to upset our hitherto steely resolve.

In its sanctimonious (and often downright wrong) Chief Sub column, this less-than-coruscating magazine started laying down the law about split infinitives in a way that made us want to connect the electrodes to its staples and give it a sharp jolt.

It rehearsed the usual academic arguments to explain away the whole notion of the split infinitive as a grammatical or stylistic sin.

It pointed out, correctly, that the infinitive does not include the word "to" (in "I made him go", the "go" is an infinitive, but there's no "to" in sight). And it emphasised, as many have done before, that the so-called "split infinitive" is not necessarily a grammatical mistake anyway (of which, much more, if you want it, at another time, in another place).

But it missed the practical point entirely.

Which is, in case you could possibly have failed to notice it, that we are currently suffering from a generation of semi-literate would-be writers who believe that the only possible place for an adverb is jammed in between the "to" and the infinitive.

If we see another "to better understand", "to more easily quantify" or "to much more clearly and comprehensively articulate" this week, someone is going to pay a terrible price.

Obviously, the fault lies with the Americans. As a nation, they wouldn't know where to put an adverb if their lives depended on it. But their pernicious influence on word order in business and commercial writing is now so overwhelming that even naturally talented writers of real, uncontaminated English find themselves lost and bemused.

We see them bending and distorting their sentences, or else frantically trying to find supposedly "logical" justifications for the word order they know, by ear and instinct, is right.

And when we get into the realms of the split (or not) infinitives (or not), these natural talents are all at sea.

They've been taught that splitting infinitives is wrong. Then they've been taught that it's OK, or at least forgivable. Now they are being bludgeoned, by uninformed, cloth-eared peer pressure into believing that splitting is mandatory — and that the longer and more sustained the split is, the better it will sound.

The fact is, stuffing an adverb or an adverbial phrase in between "to" and an infinitive is usually wrong — on style and sound grounds, rather than any basis in grammatical theory.

Where the steps that would be needed to avoid it would result in worse atrocities, the smart e-editor goes, as always, for the lesser of two evils. This, as someone once said, is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know. And people who tell you they have a rule that overrides that are talking silly and ill-informed nonsense.
The live blog for everybody who lives and dies by the word. The UK's top guide to editing better and getting more respect for it is at www.e-editor.co.uk.

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