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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: To infinitive and beyond

by Philip Martin | March 23, 2021 at 3:31 a.m.

Karen's telling me this: She's riding her bike and another cyclist pulls alongside her.

"Can I tell you something?" he asks politely. "I noticed you're really working hard. It would be a lot easier to pedal if you moved your right-hand shifter into a higher gear."

So he was mansplaining to you, I mansplain. Did you tell him you were on the cover of Bicycling magazine in the '80s?

She did not. She just thanked him for his advice.

And keeps pedaling in the lower gear. (Because it is harder. Because it's more work. Because it's a workout. It would be easier to hop on one of those battery-powered scooters you find lying around. It would be easier to sit on the couch and eat an ice cream sandwich. Not everyone is always looking for easier.)

No harm, no foul. He was trying to be helpful. He was trying to give back to the community. He had this expertise and thought he could share it to make someone's life a little better. Some people can't help themselves. They give tips.

Here's a tip: Don't instruct people. They generally don't appreciate it.

They might say they do; they might make a show of profusely thanking you for correcting their kettlebell swing form, but they really don't. They for sure don't like you correcting their English grammar.

I certainly don't like it, although grammatical mistakes creep into my copy all the time. Deadlines and inexpert typing are contributing factors, but I'm far more concerned about the heft of words and whether the rhythms swing than some Latin-based dogma, irrelevant to English, that appealed to a certain Victorian will to order.

Such as the "split infinitive" rule, which holds that it's wrong to extend an infinitive by stuffing extra words between the "to" and the verb; "to boldly go" is a split infinitive. Some people hold it's wrong, but it's really not, or at least there's no practical reason that it's wrong other than some people want it to be.

Split infinitives are so common among English speakers that they're virtually invisible to anyone who isn't lying in wait trying to catch someone out.

And they're becoming more common. In 2017, researchers at Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press sorted through more than 1,000 hours of recorded casual conversations to determine that present-day British English speakers were using split infinitives almost three times as much as they did in the early 1990s.

The sample included 11.5 million words, with 117 split infinitives occurring per million in 2017, compared with a rate of 44 per million in the early '90s.

You might argue that lots of people doing things wrong doesn't make them right, but that denies the way language works. We don't speak the same English we did in Chaucer's or Shakespeare's day; we don't talk the same way we did in the '90s. As scary as it might be, language is constantly evolving. When enough people stop regarding certain usages as mistakes, those mistakes become part of Standard English.

So does that mean no one corrects a split infinitive unless they want to assert their own status, send a virtue signal that they know split infinitives are supposed to be wrong, very bad and no good, or want to make the person they're correcting feel insecure? Maybe it's not that straightforward.

For whatever reason, some people have a lot of their identity tied up in their ability to recognize and employ correct grammar. It can feel like a moral issue. I'm no grammarian, but I like Oxford commas and absolutely hate it when people use "irregardless" or say "I could care less." (I might have corrected someone once or twice.)

For some reason this newspaper has a house style rule that calls for the first word in a headline that appears after a colon to be capitalized, regardless of whether it begins a complete sentence or not.

That looks positively ugly to me, like a thumb in the eye.

Recently I asked for an explanation, and as often happens in bureaucratic institutions like newspapers, I got the "that's the way we've always done it" answer. (As Ring Lardner, via Paul Greenberg, sometimes put it: Shut up, he explained.)

That didn't satisfy me, so I went crawling around looking for support of this nonsensical local rule that contravenes my idea of Standard English. While the AP Stylebook, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, and the Chicago Manual of Style support my interpretation, an official-looking University of Kansas website obviously set up by some journalism professor says, "In most cases, do capitalize [bold in the original] the first word after a colon."

The UK also says colons should, in most cases, be avoided. Which might be good advice, at least in headlines.

And while we can (and do) ignore split infinitives, there are obvious benefits to speaking and writing like an educated person, and we would certainly want to learn the rules before we go about breaking them. While we might not teach grammar as well as we should, we should teach it.

But understand that grammar is an immense rule-based system that we have to apply unconsciously to achieve anything like fluency. When people say they don't know why something is right or wrong but they just know it's right or wrong, they're doing grammar right. A lot of the simplistic rules we're taught are riddled with exceptions. English is so nuanced that not even linguists are able to perfectly describe how it works.

(I just caught myself splitting an infinitive. But "to perfectly describe" sounds and feels better than "to describe perfectly." It has to do with how the vowels are ordered. Change my mind.)

It's like music; maybe it's helpful to know some theory and to be able to name the notes as they sound, but there are plenty of fine musicians who play by ear.

And if you had to choose one or the other, you'd probably choose having the ear. Unless you were more interested in displaying a penchant for pedantry than making music.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

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