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Friday, April 29, 2011

On Ignorant Pedantry in English

"The surprising thing about young fools is how many survive to become old fools." - Doug Larson


"The first prohibition against the split infinitive occurs in an 1834 article by an author identified only as "P." After that, increasingly over the course of the nineteenth century, a "rule" banning split infinitives began ricocheting from grammar book to grammar book, until every self-conscious English-speaker 'knew' that to put a word between 'to' and a verb in its infinitive was barbaric.

The split-infinitive rule may represent mindless prescriptivism's greatest height. It was foreign. (It was almost certainty based on the inability to split infinitives in Latin and Greek, since they consist of one word only.) It had been routinely violated by the great writers in English; one 1931 study found split infinitives in English literature from every century, beginning with the fourteenth-century epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, through wrongdoers such as William Tyndale, Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, John Donne, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others.

Rewording split infinitives can introduce ambiguity: 'He failed entirely to comprehend it' can mean he failed entirely, or he comprehended, but not entirely. Only putting 'entirely' between 'to' and 'comprehend' can convey clearly 'he comprehended most, but not all.' True, sentences can be reworded to work around the problem ('He failed to comprehend everything'), but there is no reason to do so. While many prescriptive rules falsely claim to improve readability and clarity, this one is worse, introducing a problem that wasn't there in the first place. Yet as split infinitives in fact became more common in nineteenth-century writing, condemnations of it grew equally strongly. The idea that 'rules' were more important than history, elegance, or actual practice ... held writers and speakers in terror of making them. ...

Why is it 'wrong' to end a sentence with a preposition? ... Who, upon seeing a cake in the office break room, says, 'For whom is this cake?' instead of 'Who's the cake for?' Where did this rule come from?

The answer will surprise even most English teachers: John Dryden, the seventeenth-century poet less well known as an early, influential stickler. In a 1672 essay, he criticized his literary predecessor Ben Jonson for writing 'The bodies that these souls were frightened from.' Why the prepositional bee in Dryden's syntactical bonnet? This pseudo-rule probably springs from the same source many others do: the classical languages. Dryden said he liked to compose in Latin and translate into English, as he valued the precision and clarity he believed Latin required of writers. The preposition-final construction is impossible in Latin. Hence: it is impossible in English. Confused by his logic? Linguists remain so to this day. But once Dryden proclaimed the rule, it made its way into the first generation of English usage books roughly a century later and thence into the minds of two hundred years of English teachers and copy editors.

The rule has no basis in clarity ('Who's that cake for?' is perfectly clear); history (it was made up from whole cloth); literary tradition (Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, Henry Adams, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, and dozens of other great writers have violated it); or purity (it isn't native to English but probably stolen from Latin; clause-final prepositions exist in English's cousin languages such as Danish and Icelandic). Many people know that the Dryden rule is nonsense. From the great usage-book writer Henry Fowler in the early twentieth century, usage experts began to caution readers io ignore it. The New York Times flouts it. The 'rule' should be put to death, but it may never be. Even those who know it is ridiculous observe it for fear of annoying others."

--- You Are What You Speak / Robert Lane Greene
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