YOUR STORY IS YOUR MESSAGE: YOUR MASTERY OF THE LANGUAGE IS YOUR MESSENGER.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


     An author found a dusty brass lamp in his attic. As he rubbed it to remove the tarnish, a genie appeared and said to the astonished author, "I am bound to grant you one wish of anything you desire."
     The author pondered that and finally replied, "Well, I'd like to see my parents in Hawaii more often, but I can't afford to go by cruise ship and I'm afraid to fly. I think I want an ocean highway from California to Oahu so I can drive over any time I like."
     The genie thought about it a minute and blew out his breath in consternation. "That's three thousand miles. The enormous amounts of concrete and asphalt and the engineering challenges by themselves would strain even my ability to use magic in its construction. Nothing approaching this has ever been asked of me."
     After some thought, the writer said, "All right, then, I'll settle for a publisher who won't fictionalize my royalty statements and will treat me fairly and won't try to change my book into something different from what I wrote."
     The genie instantly answered: "So, do you want two or four lanes on this highway?"



     Office workers used to keep more cute signs on their desks than they do nowadays. I recall one that said, “There's no reason for it. It's just our policy.” This pretty much covers the attitude of the grammar “authorities” who like to badmouth split infinitives and split compound verbs. As everybody who's ever asked the question knows, nobody can tell you why you shouldn't use them. There's a good reason for that. These “rules” are not rules at all, but stylistic choices that gained the unmerited status of prescriptive pseudo-rules for no good reason whatsoever. Nevertheless, few things will make a tightly wound Language Arts teacher go zombie on your ass faster than splitting an infinitive, and not much will draw a bad look from some journalism professors quicker than squeezing an adverb between the auxiliary and main parts of a compound verb. As a fiction writer, ignore these people; if you listen to them you'll needlessly limit your writing by trying to “fix” something there was nothing wrong with in the first place.

Split Infinitives
     The injunction against the split infinitive is based on the specious argument that the English infinitive is a single unit and should not, therefore, be split. This misguided notion probably arrived in our language as a stowaway in the back pocket of verbs of other languages, primarily Latin and Romance languages, as they were adopted into English. In such languages, “to” is a part of the root verb—in Spanish, for example, “ir” literally means “to go,” so it's impossible “to boldly go” anywhere. You'll have to settle for going boldly. The un-splittable infinitive is part and parcel of these languages and somehow came to be expected by many English grammarians who figured that if it was good enough for Latin it was good enough for them and didn't take the couple seconds needed to look at an English infinitive form and see that it's not chained to a single expression, that it is comprised not of one word but two—the introducer and the verb. Far from being a weakness of our language, this ability to convey more nuances of meaning by inserting an adverb or a modal between “to” and the root verb has always been a strength, one more thing that separates and elevates English from less powerful languages like Spanish and French where such possibilities don't even exist.
     Everybody knew what Harvey was going to do. He was going to flatly refuse the offer.
     Of course, this could be rewritten as
     He was going to refuse the offer flatly.
     Alternatively, the infinitive issue could be sidestepped entirely by rephrasing it as
     He would flatly refuse.
     But you don't have to do either thing, see, because you are a user of English, the world's most powerful language. The English infinitive form—which is, in a very real way, already split—allows its users to express narrower shades of meaning than are available to writers of more limited languages.
     “. . . there has never been a rational basis for the objection to the split infinitive . . . .”
     Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary

     So, is there anything grammatically incorrect about the split infinitive? Of course not. There never was.

Split Compound Verbs
     In English, there are only two plain verb tenses that are marked by use of the verb only. Those tenses are the present (I go, you go, etc.) and the past (I drove, you drove, and so on). All of the couple dozen other verb tenses are compound expressions using auxiliary verbs (also called helping verbs) before main verbs. I will go, you have gone, he had gone, they will have gone, she can go, we would have gone, yada yada yada, are all compound verb expressions, called compound verbs. Most of us regularly insert an adverb between the helper and the main verb to more narrowly define the action: he had gone becomes he had already gone, I will go becomes I will probably go, and the like. These adverbs inside compound verbs serve us well; indeed, for many of us they're essential to our speech and writing, and we'd have a hard time getting along through a single day without them.
     Nevertheless, certain folks, especially in the journalism community, discourage the split compound verb for the same reason they dislike the split infinitive, which is to say for no good reason at all. The Associated Press Stylebook, under SPLIT FORMS, cautions writers to generally avoid “awkward constructions” caused by splitting either infinitives or complex verbs. At the end of the entry, in the usual vague fashion of all critics of things they don't have an actual reason to criticize, the AP guide sits foursquare on the fence and says it's okay to use a split form “occasionally” when “necessary to meaning” and “not awkward.” This begs the question: How often do you strive to write things that are not necessary to meaning and things that are awkward? The answer is, of course, never, and so, as is the case with split infinitives, you can and should split compound verbs any time you feel like it.

       What, you're still here? Split something. Go. 

Excerpted from
WRITERS' DEVILS
The Grammar and Usage Guide for Fiction Writers
$4.99 at the Amazon Kindle Store
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