September 20, 2004

Two bites of authors' remorse

Now that Rodney Huddleston and I have our book A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, and submitted it to Cambridge University Press, and gone through the (shudder) copy-editing stage, I have finally noticed two things about it. (This always happens. It's the author's analog — or in this case authors' analog — of buyer's remorse.) Both of them are somewhat shocking, but I don't know if we can do anything about them.

The first is that the initials of our title form the acronym SIEG. That doesn't seem good at all. But I suppose it could have been worse. If we had added a subtitle like How English Illustrates Linguistics, the acronym would have been SIEG HEIL.

The other shocking thing is more substantive. I just did a global search of the entire electroscript and found that nowhere does the book make the slightest mention of the concept "split infinitive".

Now, I should stress that to us there is no such thing. The word sequences to which people apply the term "split infinitive" are phrases like to really be careful. But nothing is split here. To be is not a word, it's two words. (One of them occurs in I won't because I don't want to; the other occurs in I'm drunk now but tomorrow I won't be; they're completely independent of each other.) To really be careful is an infinitival verb phrase in which to is attached to a verb phrase that happens to begin with an adverb. The imperative Really be careful, now! shows you that this is O.K. A verb phrase is allowed to begin with anything it wants, subject only to the syntactic principles about the contents of verb phrases. The only thing that to cares about is that if it is to attach to a verb phrase to make an infinitival verb phrase, the verb should be in its uninflected plain form (in the case of the present example, the form be, not am or is or been). But that verb doesn't have to be the very first word in the verb phrase. There are six hundred years' worth of examples in good writing that prove it (a wonderful collection is gathered by George O. Curme in his classic volume Syntax). And Arnold Zwicky has carefully demonstrated that in some cases of infinitival verb phrases it is actually required that a modifying word be located right at the beginning of the verb phrase that has the to on it, hence following to and preceding the plain form of the verb.

There isn't anything the slightest bit grammatically wrong with a sentence like You should wear both a belt and suspenders to really be careful. The people who regard such sentences as in need of editing are loonies (or copy editors, which is often very much the same thing). Huddleston and I had almost forgotten that there were such people when we were writing our book.

But there are surely enough loonies out there that we should at least have mentioned the issue. We may have to add something. Perhaps we could just add an entry to the glossary:

Split infinitive: No such thing. Don't be a loony.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 20, 2004 01:55 PM