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To Split or Not To Split

Not everyone knows what an infinitive is, but everyone uses them.

Infinitives are formed when a verb is preceded by the word to, as in to run or to ask. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech might be the most famous use of infinitives in English literature.

One of the great misconceptions about English is that it is wrong to “split” an infinitive—that is, to put a word or words between to and the verb. According to this superstition, to quickly respond or to flatly refuse is incorrect; we should say instead, to respond quickly or to refuse flatly. This supposedly preserves the “integrity” of the infinitive.

The myth sprang up in the 18th century, when grammarians decreed that English should be modeled on Latin. In Latin, infinitives are one word, so they can’t be split. The trouble is that English is a Germanic, not a Romance, language. Imposing Latin rules on English is like demanding that cats act like dogs.

There is no point in splitting an infinitive just for the fun of it. Experienced writers do not split capriciously. But sometimes they prefer to—and sometimes they have to. A classic example of the latter case: I expect my salary to more than double. There’s no other place for more than except right between to and double.

Would Hamlet’s speech be so admired if it opened with “To be or to not be”? Splitting infinitives with not is usually a terrible idea. I decided not to go is a vast improvement on the clunky I decided to not go.

But now consider His mistake was to not go. It’s ugly, but it says what it means. Placing not before to go would invite ambiguity: His mistake was not instead of His mistake was. In this and many other cases involving split infinitives, a rewrite would be a good plan: He made a mistake by not going.

Finally, notice how often infinitives are split by dispensable adverbs, as in this sentence: I intend to strongly protest. The verbs intend and protest are dynamic enough to make strongly extraneous—I intend to protest would be an improvement. Any time an adverb can be removed, it should be.

POP QUIZ

Which sentences would be improved by “unsplitting” the infinitive? Which ones are fine the way they are? See our views below.

1. I was hoping she’d choose to not attend.

2. He wanted to strongly advise against it.

3. Alice needed to quickly leave.

4. She’s not expected to immediately fix the problem.

5. We decided to gradually get rid of the clutter.

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. I was hoping she’d choose not to attend.

2. He wanted to strongly advise against it. (We’d keep it as is; to strongly advise sounds more forceful to us than to advise strongly.)

3. Alice needed to leave. (The urgency of “needed” makes “quickly” unnecessary.)

4. She’s not expected to fix the problem immediately.

5. We decided to gradually get rid of the clutter. (Best option, although some would argue for get rid of the clutter gradually. Decided gradually to get rid of is ambiguous. Get gradually rid of and get rid gradually of strike us as ghastly alternatives.)

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Posted on Tuesday, September 24, 2013, at 12:45 pm


Words Can Be Bullies

Words that start with the letter h don’t always act like it.

Consider “herb,” when it means “an aromatic plant used for seasoning in cooking.” Americans dump the h, whereas many Brits pronounce it. So we say “an ’erb,” but an Englishman says “a herb.”

A different sort of h-confusion happens when self-important speakers and writers say “an historic occasion” or “an heroic soldier.” Ever notice that “an” only precedes a few highfalutin h-words like “historic(al),” “hypothetical,” “hallucinogenic”? And they tend to have three or more syllables: “An heroic soldier” is also “a hero.”

About 20 years ago, Time magazine ran a front-cover headline beginning, “A Historic…” and misguided word nerds raised a furor, insisting Time should have said “An Historic”—but the magazine never budged, stating flatly that “an historic” is wrong.

In everyday conversation, would you describe a wailing brat as “an hysterical child”? I sincerely doubt it. But what makes “hysterical” so different from “historical”?

A Google check yields tips from various websites, which only reinforce common sense: “You should use ‘an’ before a word beginning with an ‘H’ only if the ‘H’ is not pronounced” (from the website wsu.edu/~brians/errors/anhistoric.html).

Or this: “you use an before vowel sounds…Following this rule, we would say ‘a historic,’ not ‘an historic’ ” (betterwritingskills.com).

Or this one, which ought to seal the deal: “I’d love to hear a reasonable argument, based on logic and not convention, in support of ‘an historic’…given the prevalence of such similar constructions as ‘a hotel downtown’ and ‘a high bar’ and ‘a hitman killed my dog’ ” (ask.metafilter.com).

Pomposity often leads to tortured language. I remember lawyer-turned-sportscaster Howard Cosell, rest his troubled soul, and the way he regularly subjected professional athletes to his cruel and unusual polysyllabic punishment. In general, jocks are spoiled, semi-educated boors, and they know it, so the tug-of-war between them and Cosell was great theater.

At its most sublime, it involved boxing champion Muhammad Ali. He and Howard made a great team, and there was genuine love and trust there. Whatever his faults, Cosell, perhaps at the risk of his own career, had taken up for the draft-evading Ali when the champ was something of a national pariah. (YouTube.com has many wonderful sequences of these two through the years.)

Although there was a good Cosell, all too often we got Bad Howard, neurotically insecure, the one who knew he was kept at arm’s length by these great physical geniuses—and resented it. He knew they mocked him, not caring that Cosell had more knowledge of more subjects than all of them put together. So he would sometimes do perverse things, like the time he bullied a poor rookie football player from some Deep South ghetto. Bad Howard said something like: “So, my young friend, in your estimation, did the immensity of the task assigned you, juxtaposed with the metaphysical certainty of your callow demeanor, effectuate a lessened or heightened capacity on your part?”

I’m not kidding. That’s pretty close to what Howard said. As the kid listened, his eyes widened with terror and confusion, as if he were being swarmed by a raging horde of ruthless linebackers. I don’t recall his answer.

Tom Stern

 

Pop Quiz
As we discussed last time, the great writer Elmore Leonard, who died August 20, deplored adverbs. Experienced writers like Leonard prefer strong nouns and verbs. In this quiz, try rewriting each sentence with greater precision and economy. There are no correct answers, but our suggestions may be found in the Answers section.

1. Avoiding wordiness is basically a simple principle of good writing.
2. He went into the room quickly.
3. She was incredibly thrilled by the experience.
4. He said things about us that were viciously harmful and insulting.
5. The committee strongly expressed disapproval of them.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Avoiding wordiness is a fundamental of good writing.
2. He hurried into the room.
3. The experience elated her.
4. He vilified us.
5. The committee censured them.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 3, 2013, at 6:53 pm


Leonard’s Ten Commandments

The writer Elmore Leonard, who died last week at 87, was the master of hard-bitten prose. He started out as a pulp novelist, and went on to transcend the genre. Since the mid-1950s, more than forty of his works have been adapted for movies and TV, many of them featuring such A-listers as Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, and George Clooney. In his obituary, the Associated Press called the longtime Michigan resident “the Dickens of Detroit, the Chaucer of crime,” and said, “Few writers so memorably traveled the low road.”

The author’s seemingly effortless low-key, economical technique, with its affably nasty edge, has been the envy of many an aspiring novelist. In 2001, he wrote an article for the New York Times that contained ten rules for fiction writers. Anyone interested in the art and craft of writing is urged to seek out this compelling document online. Today we’ll deal with a couple of Leonard’s precepts.

Rule Three: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” This is good advice for essayists and journalists, too. Many writers worry that repeating “said” will make them look bad. So they start substituting words like “grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied” before reaching the end of the line (and of Leonard’s patience) with eyesores like “asseverated.”

Leonard is stressing that the quote is what matters, and “the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.” As William Zinsser says in his fine guide On Writing Well, “The reader’s eye skips over ‘he said’ anyway, so it’s not worth a lot of fuss.”

Which leads to Rule Four: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” Many great writers have a similar disdain for adverbs. Mark Twain said, “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” Stephen King, another novelist who has achieved beyond his pulp pedigree, once wrote: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Some will be puzzled by this. But how is The town was completely destroyed or basically destroyed an improvement on The town was destroyed? When you become aware that in most cases, the likes of basically, completely, actually, definitely, and very are unnecessary, you start to understand adverb abhorrence.

One note about very: the distinguished journalist and author William Allen White (1868-1944) once called it “the weakest word in the English language.”

 

Pop Quiz

Despite Elmore Leonard’s commandments, some writers may prefer variations on “said” at appropriate times. There are no right answers to this quiz, but with Mr. Leonard in mind, rewrite any sentence below as you wish, and see if your instincts for staying out of the way of a good story are akin to ours.

1. Bob turned to Mary and offered, “You are the loveliest woman at the party.”

2. “I came here today and saw a whale,” she explained.

3. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“To see you,” I replied.

4. “Why, what a jolly surprise,” he smiled.

5. “Who is equivalent to he, and whom is equivalent to him,” I explained.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Bob turned to Mary and said, “You are the loveliest woman at the party.”

2. “I came here today and saw a whale,” she said. (Be careful with explained. In this sentence, nothing is “explained”; it’s just a statement of fact.)

3. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“To see you,” I replied. CORRECT

4. “Why, what a jolly surprise,” he said. (Have you ever heard anyone smile?)

5. “Who is equivalent to he, and whom is equivalent to him,” I explained. CORRECT

 

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Posted on Monday, August 26, 2013, at 2:22 pm


The Subjunctive Mood

An E-Newsletter fan came across this sentence:
If I were very lucky, I would get the chance to go. She asked, “Shouldn’t I be followed by was, not were, since I is singular?”

Let me answer that by asking you a question: Are you old enough to remember the ad jingle that began, “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener…”? These two sentences are both examples of the subjunctive mood, which refers to the expression of a hypothetical, wishful, imaginary, or factually contradictory thought. The subjunctive mood often pairs singular subjects with what we usually think of as plural verbs. The subjunctive is often used in “that,” “if,” and “wish” clauses.

Examples:
She requested that he raise his hand.
If I were rich, I’d sail around the world.
He wishes he were in a position to give his employees raises.

Normally, he raise would sound terrible to us. However, in the first example above, where a request or wish is being expressed, he raise is correct. In the next two examples, a thought or wish contrary to fact is being expressed; therefore, were, which we normally think of as a plural verb, is used with the singular subject I.

In general, use the past perfect tense when using the subjunctive mood with verbs besides were.

Examples:
I wish I had studied more for the test.
It would be better if you had brought the ice cream in a cooler.

Pop Quiz

Select the correct verbs in the following sentences:

1. If I was/were stronger, I would have won that race.
2. I wish he was/were able to come to the party earlier.
3. If she was/were truly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back.
4. I wish I practiced/had practiced piano when I was younger.
5. If she had gone/went to the store on Saturday, she would have received a discount.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. If I were stronger, I would have won that race.
2. I wish he were able to come to the party earlier.
3. If she were truly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back.
4. I wish I had practiced piano when I was younger.
5. If she had gone to the store on Saturday, she would have received a discount.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 9, 2010, at 9:11 am


If I Would Have vs. If I Had

Reprinted with permission by Editor Laura Lawless, http://www.elearnenglishlanguage.com/.

When talking about something that didn’t happen in the past, many English speakers use the conditional perfect (if I would have done) when they should be using the past perfect (if I had done).

For example, you find out that your brother saw a movie yesterday. You would have liked to see it too, but you hadn’t known he was going. To express this, you can use an if-then clause. The correct way to say this is with the past perfect in the “if” clause, and the conditional perfect in the “then” clause:

Correct: If I had known that you were going to the movies, [then] I would have gone too.

The conditional perfect can only go in the “then” clause — it is grammatically incorrect to use the conditional perfect in the “if” clause:

Incorrect: If I would have known that you were going to the movies, I would have gone too.

More examples:

Correct: If I had gotten paid, we could have traveled together.
Correct: Had I gotten paid, we could have traveled together.

Incorrect: If I would have gotten paid, we could have traveled together.

Correct: If you had asked me, I could have helped you.
Correct: Had you asked me, I could have helped you.

Incorrect: If you would have asked me, I could have helped you.

The same mistake occurs with the verb “wish.” You can’t use the conditional perfect when wishing something had happened; you again need the past perfect.

Correct: I wish I had known.

Incorrect: I wish I would have known.

Correct: I wish you had told me.

Incorrect: I wish you would have told me.

Correct: We wish they had been honest.

Incorrect: We wish they would have been honest.

Pop Quiz
Choose A or B.

1A. If I would have known you were sick, I could have brought you some meals.
1B. If I had known you were sick, I could have brought you some meals.

2A. If you had explained the objective, I could have completed the assignment sooner.
2B. If you would have explained the objective, I could have completed the assignment sooner.

3A. I wish it would have gone differently.
3B. I wish it had gone differently.

4A. We wish the team had scored more goals.
4B. We wish the team would have scored more goals.

Pop Quiz Answers

1B. If I had known you were sick, I could have brought you some meals.
2A. If you had explained the objective, I could have completed the assignment sooner.
3B. I wish it had gone differently.
4A. We wish the team had scored more goals.

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Posted on Saturday, April 4, 2009, at 7:25 pm