Accepting the truth of split infinitives

January 1, 2019 By Erin Brenner ACES News

We seem to be in a season of style updates. AP Stylebook’s latest edition is due out in June. At the recent ACES conference, it announced one of its big changes: dropping the collide/collision entry.

Though it doesn’t publish as frequently, The Economist also has a new edition of its style guide coming out in June. I almost wonder if there’s a secret competition going on between the two publications. AP giving up on the idea that “two objects must be in motion before they can collide” is a notable, if overdue, change. The Economist’s big change is jaw-dropping.

(Sharon McCutcheon, Unsplash)

The Economist will now allow split infinitives.

For those unfamiliar with the business publication’s style, the business publication has staunchly defended its prohibition on split infinitives for years. It states in a previous edition of its style guide:

Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.

The claim, you see, is that readers of The Economist are a demanding bunch and they flatly refuse to tolerate such crassness as a split infinitive in their beloved publication.

But language commentators have long wondered who exactly is annoyed by it. Writes Jonathon Owen on Arrant Pedantry: “Most usage commentators have moved on, and I suspect that most laypeople either don’t know or don’t care what a split infinitive is. I don’t think I know a single copy editor who’s bothered by them.”

And The Economist’s slavish following of this zombie rule has created some awkward sentences, which linguist Geoff Pullum frequently pounces on. For example:

This newspaper has argued before that it is better directly to tax investors, workers and consumers. (October 26, 2013, p. 15)

At a computer-security conference in 2015, researchers demonstrated how wirelessly to hack a car made by Jeep, spinning its steering wheel or slamming on its brakes. (December 24, 2016)

After all this time, what triggered the change? Writing The Economist’s Johnson column, Lane Greene gives two reasons. First is that they “get almost as many letters about sentences tortured to avoid the split as [they] do about split infinitives themselves.” Hooray for letter — and blog — writing campaigns!

I much prefer the second reason, though: “Writers should not make a habit of dodging the truth merely because it is unpopular among a dedicated minority of readers. There is nothing wrong with a split infinitive.”

This is what I, Owen, Pullum, and others have been saying for years. While writers and editors are here to serve the readers, no one is served by tortured sentencessuch as “With a larger majority she can more easily stand up to her ultra-Eurosceptic backbenchers, some of whom seem actively to want Britain to crash out.”

And if the Editors’ Association of Earth is any indication, most editors, at least, are in favor of the change, with a small minority being unable to let it go, even when their grammatical arguments fail.

The lesson is this: While it’s fine to have personal preferences, when writers and editors try to defend them with nonexistent grammar, we look foolish and we tarnish our reputation and our industry. The writer’s job is to successfully deliver a message to the reader. The editor’s job is to untangle the knots, clarifying the author’s meaning and keeping the reader engaged. Both tasks are made difficult when sentences are forced to play Twister.

For The Economist’s writers and editors, their tasks just got a little easier.

Now can we talk about singular they?

This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website, May 11, 2018.

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