April 11, 2005

The pointless game of grammar Gotcha

A letter recently published by the San Jose Mercury News read as follows (I'll quote in full):

Editor, edit thyself

The large and bold head- line on the March 15 Editorial page, "New SAT writing section aims to better reflect needed skills," suggests that your editorial page editor may need to take an SAT prep course. The bane of all English teachers, the split infinitive (to better reflect) certainly caught my attention. I couldn't help thinking, "Could I really benefit by reading on?"

David Bour Sr.

Now this is what gives the whole subject of grammar a bad name: reducing it to a pointless, unthinking, anti-intellectual game of Gotcha. What's so pathetic in this particular case is not just that (does any Language Log reader have to be told this again?) the split infinitive construction is grammatical and has been attested in all forms of written English for at least seven hundred years, but that this particular example is one of those where "correcting" it would create ungrammaticality or ambiguity, not prevent it.

The point is that you can't move better to a better place. Shift it rightward and you get New SAT writing section aims to reflect better needed skills, where the sequence better needed suggests the wrong meaning (as if the skills were better needed than something else). Shift it leftward and you get New SAT writing section aims better to reflect needed skills, where the sequence aims better suggests a different wrong meaning (as if the new SAT aimed better than something else did). Putting better between the to and the verb it modifies is the right thing to do in this case. It makes a grammatical sentence that correctly expresses the intended meaning.

I suppose if all the usage books got this wrong one would have to admit that they people who follow them had some excuse. But the fact is that every decent guide to grammar and usage on the market agrees that the split infinitive is grammatical and often preferably to all other alternatives. Look it up! Don't take my word for it. Go to a library and take in your hand what appears to you to be a comprehensive, high-quality reference work on English usage. See what it says. There just aren't any that insist the split infinitive is always ungrammatical and should never appear in writing. Some of them even point out cases where (as Arnold Zwicky noted here on Language Log, and as actually recorded in a usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary by our own Geoff Nunberg) the split infinitive is grammatically obligatory.

The split infinitive is not the bane of English teachers. No sensible English teacher cares one whit about the split infinitive. Trust me: I teach courses on English grammar myself, and I've just published a textbook on the subject — I do have some credentials in this area. No, the bane of English teachers is pompous old fools like David Bour Sr. who attempt to carry on a tradition that values ignorant nitpicking more highly than sensible attention to style and richness of prose composition. People whose misguided pedantry undermines the very idea that the business of grammar might involve complex patterns of evidence, difficult investigations, subtle distinctions, intricate generalizations. People who contrive to ensure that the SAT test will for some decades into the future waste some of its effort on testing things that are irrelevant to scholarly aptitude. People who reduce a complex and rather interesting subject to a narrow, mechanical, empirically uninformed game of grammar Gotcha.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 11, 2005 09:42 PM