To Boldly Go: An Editor’s Journey Beyond the Infinite

According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the adjective “prescriptive” in a linguistic sense means “attempting to impose rules of correct usage on the users of a language.” If you then go and look up “descriptive,” you can see it’s defined as “describing a language without comparing, endorsing, or condemning particular usage, vocabulary, etc.”

The editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Katherine Barber, is an avowed descriptivist, and I think her definitions show a slight tonal hint of this.

As an editor I need to be both prescriptive and descriptive. I need to know every rule there is, but I also need to decide whether the text that breaks them needs fixing. I have to notice when an author has tied her prose into pretzels just so some outdated or arbitrary rule can be followed.

The so-called rule against split infinitives is a good example.

Q: How many prescriptivists does it take to split an infinitive?

A: Just one, but he has to really be persuaded.

Until the eighteenth century the rich stone soup that is our English language was written pretty much as anyone liked, following constructions and customs that had evolved over time. One day, a number of prominent writers and thinkers, including Robert Lowth, Joseph Addison, and Daniel Defoe, decided that English should be documented and standardized, following the example of the French Académie Française. Although the idea of an English “Academy” never gelled, some of these literary types began conceiving and birthing arbitrary rules for English usage.

Caught in the crossfire was the basis of all English verbs, the infinitive, normally formed with two words: the marker “to” plus the actual verb.  One theory (possibly more lore than fact) is that scholars frowned on split infinitives because they believed English grammar should emulate Latin, where the infinitive is only one word and is therefore incapable of being split. The fact is that there was no precedent in grammar or logic to prohibit a split infinitive – until some interfering grammarian decided there was.

Over the next couple of centuries some schoolteachers pounced on these new rules (they loved the excuse to punish someone for flouting any rule) and engraved them in stone. Some people still have these stones.

“Syntaxation with misrepresentation is tyranny,” wrote the late William Safire, managing to offend both my spell checker and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Safire had a point: blind allegiance to rules at the expense of clear communication exiles a living language to the gulag.

So there we have it: to arbitrarily denounce an honestly meant split infinitive – and its user – is not only wrong-headed, it might well be unconstitutional.

Rules like this (and the “never end a sentence with a preposition” one – don’t get me started), have been based on subjective rules laid down by scholars who sought to exert a control that can never survive the unstoppable momentum of a living language. In a lecture a few years ago, Katherine Barber noted that with 1.5 billion English speakers in the world, the odds might be just a tad in favour of usage over rules.

E.B. White nails it in The Elements of Style, telling us that “The ear must be quicker than the handbook.”

Editorial judgment is the key. I agree with Anne Stilman in her wonderful book Grammatically Correct, who cautions that it is fine to split infinitives, as long as we do not shatter them. Communication thrives on clarity, logic, and usage, not on rules.

If we must have a ruling from a really thick, important book, The Chicago Manual of Style gives permission to split an infinitive with an adverb “to add emphasis or to produce a natural sound.” In fact, placing an adverb in the middle of an infinitive could actually clarify its meaning. No one would argue that “I really want to kiss you” (I have a strong desire) means the same as “I want to really kiss you.” (…as opposed to our earlier false starts).

For our ultimate blessing, Lerner and Lowe gave these lyrics to no less an authority than Professor Henry Higgins, who sang he would be

“… equally as willing for the dentist to be drilling / Than to ever let a woman in my life.”

I am a prescriptivist at heart. I believe that a standard version of English should be taught and preserved, not to confine our language or our writers, but to serve as a benchmark, a starting point for greater writing adventures. In this way, can we begin to explore strange new words, to seek out new verb constructions and new ways of communicating, and to boldly write as no one has before.

Mr. Chekov, I told you to never split the phaser beams.

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