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There is nothing wrong in English with splitting an infinitive. There never was anything wrong with it, either. You probably all knew that already. Unfortunately, the loudest grammar snobs are the ones who’ve put the least research into their opinions, and so, for every ten people quietly aware that infinitives can and sometimes should be split, there’s one vocal grammaticaster shouting over them that split infinitives are an abomination in the eyes of Pope. That means that there’re still a substantial number of people out there either objecting to or grinding their teeth over Star Trek’s to boldly go.

These people are mistaken. But the fact that they are mistaken will not stop them from complaining and possibly thinking less of you. And you may very well be in a position where the opinion of the misinformed matters to you; you might be an author, editor, or even a job applicant whose cover letter will be read by a lunkhead whose personal grammatical prejudices may blind him to your outstanding qualities. This leads a large number of people aware that there is no linguistic reason to avoid split infinitives (or singular they, or sentential hopefully, etc.) to still avoid using them for fear that someone of some importance will judge them harshly. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, best summarized by Ann Daingerfield & Arnold Zwicky’s line: “Crazies win“.

Now, in many cases, it’s not so bad. It’s unfortunate that reasonable people have to bow to the whims of the mad, but that’s life, innit? After all, would you really notice if someone changed (1a) to (1b)?

(1a) I’m going to angrily split infinitives.
(1b) I’m going to split infinitives angrily.

And sometimes it even sounds better to not split an infinitive:

(2a) Alfonso Ribeiro taught me to gracefully dance.
(2b) Alfonso Ribeiro taught me to dance gracefully.

But these bad-to-split situations are not as pervasive as some people seem to think. That’s because prescriptivists have a bad habit of not actually looking at the language that they’re claiming domain over.  For example, the normally reasonable folks at AskOxford write that “Split infinitives are frequently poor style, but they are not strictly bad grammar,” and illustrate this claim with exactly zero examples. In so doing, they completely ignore the fact that sometimes the split infinitive is the only right way of doing it. For example, consider

(3a) She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.
(3b) She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.
(3c) She decided to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected gradually.
(3d) She decided to get gradually rid of the teddy bears she had collected.
(3e) She decided to get rid gradually of the teddy bears she had collected.
(3f) She decided to get rid of gradually the teddy bears she had collected.

This is an example from R. L. Trask. (3b) and (3c) unsplit the infinitive, but make it unclear where gradually is attached; is she gradually getting rid of the bears, gradually deciding to get rid of them, or getting rid of bears collected gradually? And (3d), (3e), and (3f) are just plain awkward, so if someone thinks a split infinitive is poor style, surely they’d think these ones still worse. A reasonable person might avoid split infinitives in other situations, so as not to incur the wrath of idiots, but in cases like this, no one would intentionally ruin their sentence in order to placate the misinformed.

Or so I’d figured. But then Amy McDaniel posted a worksheet from a class taught by David Foster Wallace, who very well may have been a talented writer, but also held some severely backward prescriptivist views, as discussed/destroyed at Language Hat. The worksheet is a list of sentences, each of which Wallace claims contains an error. One of the sentences is:

8. She didn’t seem to ever stop talking.

Now, in light of all this discussion about split infinitives, it’s clear that Wallace’s objection will be to the phrase to ever stop. But how do you fix it? The answer, given by McDaniel in the comments on the post, may surprise you:

the easy, unawkward fix, according to Wallace, is “She didn’t seem ever to stop talking.”

I don’t often use interrobangs, but: WHAT?! I could see “She didn’t ever seem to stop talking.” I could see “She didn’t seem to stop talking, ever.” Heck, I think I might even prefer one of those to the original.  If you’re willing to change the words, you could also use: “She never seemed to stop talking.”; “It seemed she never stopped talking.”; “She seemingly never stopped talking.”  Any of those would be reasonable, unawkward replacements.

But “She didn’t seem ever to stop talking”? Does anyone find to be that a good sentence, or even an “unawkward” one? It sounds awful to me, but then, being from Pittsburgh, I’m not entirely standard in my usage of negative polarity items like ever or anymore. If you like this sentence, please say so.

This is the weird thing with this worksheet: Wallace was a well-renowned writer, as well as a native speaker of English.  How can someone so close to the language be so blind to what does and doesn’t sound like English?  Because his re-phrased sentence most certainly does not.

Please, dear reader, I beg of you. Don’t let fear of what other people will say about your writing cause you to write something obviously awkward. And if you should disregard my plea, at least don’t pull a David Foster Wallace and convince people who respect you to fly in the face of all that sounds right in English.

[Hat tip to bradshaw of the future for pushing me to finish this post.]

Wallace’s other sentence revisions have already been intelligently discussed (attacked) in many other blogs, among them Arnold Zwicky’s discussion of each other and one another, Chris Potts’s succinct dismissal at Language Log, the truly stunning point-by-point gutting of the test delivered at Mackerel Economics, and another equally stunning point-by-point evisceration from Starlingford Chronicles. I highly recommend you check these out.

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And so it has come to be National Grammar Day again, one of those made-up holidays like National Soup Month or World Hello Day. I can’t help but feel cynical about the day, in the same way that Matt Lane at Math Goes Pop! felt cynical about yesterday’s “Square Root Day”. The problem is that Square Root Day doesn’t get anyone excited about real math, but rather about simple arithmetic coincidences. Likewise, to the dismay of us linguists, National Grammar Day will mostly just result in prescriptivist dilettantes coming out in full force, tossing around ignorant grammatical proclamations with gusto, like so many dimes at a dime toss. It’s not going to get anyone excited about psycholinguistics or syntactic theory or any of the really awesome parts of language.

As such, I might as well do what I can with National Grammar Day and debunk a few of the grammar myths you might encounter today. That also gives me an excuse to go through and call up a few interesting posts that I’d forgotten about, both my own and others’. So here are 10 facts about the English language that go against the unjustified beliefs peddled by prescriptivists. I’m putting summaries of the posts here, with links to the original posts so that you can see why the prescriptivists’ claims should be regarded as myths, no matter how loudly they are proclaimed. To prevent misinterpretation, I am not going to state the myths here, only the corresponding truths:

You can use that in relative clauses with people. (Part I, Part II) Whether you’re speaking historically or restricting yourself to present usage, you’re mistaken if you think that is strictly for things. Phrases like the people that I know are actually more common in contemporary English than the people who(m) I know.

10 items or less lines are perfectly fine, grammatically speaking. The idea that less can’t be used with count nouns isn’t well supported; it’s a rule that hasn’t ever been strictly followed, especially for count nouns that can be perceived as masses. Groceries lend themselves to perception as a mass, so it’s no surprise that “10 items or less” is favored now, just as it has been historically. Please stop complaining about this.

Different than is perfectly acceptable. There are three major arguments claiming from is the only preposition that can be used with different. They’re all invalid. Not only that, but historical usage justifies the continued usage of different than.

Alright is all right. Alright is a common, 100-year-old alternate spelling of all right, presumably created on analogy to already and although. I think to many people (including myself), the two spellings have slightly different meanings and could reasonably be considered two separate and equally valid words.

Over can mean “more than”. The idea that over can’t mean “more than” is such rubbish that I wouldn’t have believed anyone believed it, were I not constantly dealing with prescriptivist idiocy. Truth is, over has been used to mean “more than” for 1000 years.

Nauseous can mean “sickened”. nauseous has had two meanings for the past 150 years, both “sickened” and “sickening”. Anyone concerned that having two meanings will lead to terrible confusion is either naive or shedding crocodile tears. If you can’t figure out what “I feel nauseous” is supposed to mean, you’re actively trying to misinterpret it.

From Language Log:

You can end a sentence with a preposition, Dryden be damned! I wrote about this in the context of the question “Where are you at?”, but it’s a more general problem than that, and is one of the best-known grammatical bugaboos. No serious scholar of the English language holds this view.

They can be singular in certain situations. To quote an idol of mine, Geoff Pullum: “Avoid singular they if you want to; nobody is making you use it. But don’t ever think that it is new (it goes back to early English centuries ago), or that it is illogical (there is no logical conflict between being syntactically singular and semantically plural), or that it is ungrammatical (it is used by the finest writers who ever used English, writers who uncontroversially knew what they were doing).”

Often a passive sentence is better than its active counterpart. In my younger years, I was repeatedly admonished for using the passive voice in my writing. The admonishers were mistaken, though. Many famous detractors of the passive voice (the passive is opposed by many) consistently use the passive voice in appropriate circumstances. Don’t be scared away from it. Honestly, it’s very useful.

And one from the Volokh Conspiracy:

Split infinitives when you feel like it. Honestly, if you think that it’s improper to split an infinitive in English, you need help. This has never been a rational or justifiable rule of English, and just looking at competent English writing should be enough to disabuse you of this notion. Split infinitives are commonly quite beautiful, especially when compared to the often-barbarous sound of an unsplit infinitive.

[Update 03/04/2010: For National Grammar Day 2010, I’ve listed 10 more bogus grammar myths, addressing topics such as sentence-adverbial hopefully, healthy/healthful, between/among, and more on singular they.]

[Update 03/04/2011: For National Grammar Day 2011, I’ve listed another 10 grammar myths, addressing topics such as Ebonics, gender-neutral language, and center around.]

[Update 03/04/2012: And again for 2012. Ten more myths, looking at matters such as each other, anyways, and I’m good.]

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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