Split infinitives don’t exist in English.

Is that a shocker to you?

First, let me explain an infinitive. It’s a verb form in English that uses the word “to” with the root form of the verb. The result, a kind of verbal, is called an infinitive. It can function as a noun, as in “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” There, it’s the subject of each clause. I wrote about two kinds of verbals here. This one, the infinitive, is the one I didn’t cover there. In this post I’m focusing on the false belief that there is such a thing as a “split infinitive.” I’m not explaining the verbal form.

So, all right. We have a two-word formation, like “to lose.” That “to” is not grammatically part of the infinitive. Rather, in Oxford English Grammar Greenbaum calls it a subordinator, while Huddleston/Pullum in their Cambridge Grammar of the English Language prefer “the infinitival to.” The grammatical part is that root form, “lose.” No grammatical rule says that other words can’t come between that “to” and the root form. Some folks in the 19th century got it into their heads, though, to force Latin grammar rules onto English, so we ended up with the specious nonrule against “split infinitives.” But here’s the thing: In Latin (and other languages as well, like French), it’s impossible to “split” an infinitive because that form is a single word. There’s nothing to separate, nowhere to intervene with another word.

Don’t tie yourself into knots trying to keep that “to” with that root verb. It’s not wrong. There’s no rule saying you can’t write “He wanted to just be left alone.” (The question of whether that “just” is worth keeping is a separate one, and I’m not touching it here. One could as easily replace it with “simply,” if that makes it more palatable to the reader.) And if you see it written that way, you’re under no obligation to “correct” it. There’s nothing to correct, from a grammatical standpoint.

If you’re up for a bit of research, I’ll recommend getting your eyes/hands on the aforementioned grammar texts. Personally, I have the student guide version of Cambridge because the full edition was out of my price range. In Greenbaum, the “split infinitive” is relegated to a chapter note in the section at the end of the text. (It didn’t even earn space in the main text. Only a note.)

Show & Tell (or not)

The “show, don’t tell” discourse has come around again as it does, and this time I have a little something to add. I want to thank Maria Heater and Ian Martinez Cassmeyer for inspiring me.

It’s been pointed out that this isn’t an absolute. It’s not “ALWAYS show, NEVER tell.” It’s more a case of “explain when it’s needed, and when it isn’t, describe.” Background is often best done by telling/explaining. Give the reader what they need to understand! Don’t let them flail around in the dark while you “show” them. Tell them, straight up. “The flight was late, and by the time he left the jetway he was moving at a dead run.” I don’t need to know he’s feeling his heart pound while he’s running. You’ve told me he’s late. That’s good information, presented as it needs to be. Describing the entire sequence of movements from jetway to ride-share pickup point would be tedious as hell. Just explain it and get on with the story. (Now, it’s possible that something important to the story happens during his dash for the Uber. Then, maybe we need some describing. It’s a balancing act!)

I usually end up reminding clients to “show, don’t tell” when they’re overusing filter language. Don’t tell me or your other readers what someone feels. Show me how they feel it. (Or hear it, or smell it, or taste it, or see it.) “She felt cold.” Yippee. She needs to put on a coat. “The gusts of driving sleet bit through her parka as if it were a windbreaker.” NOW I’m there with her.

Or: “He was nervous.” Poor guy. “Droplets of cold sweat dripped down the back of his neck, soaking into his shirt.” Is he at an interview? Is this the guy who was racing through the airport? I want to know!

It takes practice to strike the best balance of showing and telling. A good editor will help clients figure out how to reach that balance. That might be suggesting a change from one to the other at certain points, and providing some possible wording. It might be leaving comments like “This is perfect at this juncture!” or “I’m lost here. How about some explanation of why she thinks this?”

Show AND tell, but do so judiciously. Give readers what they need to enter your story and stay there.

GUMmyStuff: What is it?

I use the hashtag #GUMmyStuff on Twitter at least once a day. I’ve explained it there several times, but I’ve never done a post here. Time to fix that.

Grammar. Usage. Mechanics (which includes spelling and punctuation). Take the first letters of each, and you get “GUM.” Things about or containing gum are gummy, so: Posts or tweets about grammar, usage, or mechanics are gummy. Gummy stuff. #GUMmyStuff.

It makes more sense to me to use this than to have separate tags for grammar and usage and mechanics (splitting that into spelling and punctuation), because, let’s be frank—#GUMmyStuff is eye-catching. It makes people stop. It’s oddball (like me). It’s also accurate, because those tweets and posts are about those things, often in combination.

I’ve initiated hashtags before. The one that’s taken off is #SpellcheckCannotSaveYou, which some folks insist on writing with “WillNot” instead. Will has nothing to do with the situation. Spellcheck is incapable, unable to save your sorry butt from using the wrong word spelled correctly. It’s not that it won’t. It can’t.

That’s separate from GUMmyStuff, because it’s specific to one situation. GUMmyStuff is a catchall category into which I toss many things: grammatical voice, verb tense, subject/verb agreement, syntax issues, and more.

It’s stuff. GUMmyStuff.

New Year, New Rates

Happy 2022 to all my followers! May this year be an improvement over the last one.

Effective today, 3 January 2022, my rates have increased to five cents per word. You can see more at my Fee Structure document, which is linked to from my personal page here at the blog.

When I first started as an indie editor, ten years, ago, I charged a cent and a half. It took me nearly five years to raise my rates. I’m no longer shy about the process. While I don’t blow my own horn too loudly or too often, I am an award-winning editor and I’m worth the price.

Thank you for being here. I appreciate every one of you.

Honor the writer’s voice

Editors are told to “honor the writer’s voice.” But what does that mean, exactly?

It does not mean that we leave their errors in place; that would be shirking our responsibility as editors. I would hope that’s obvious, but I’ve learned that what I think is obvious is often anything but to others.

To honor the writer’s voice, we have to get a feel for their style. Do they use contractions, or do they write everything out fully? Do they like long sentences or short ones, in general? What about their word choices? Do they lean toward simpler words or fancier ones?

Maybe they use contractions in dialogue but never in narrative. It is not my job, as editor, to change all the contractions in their dialogue to fully written-out wording. Nor is it my job to contract everything that can be contracted in their narrative. My job is to see and hear how they write, and then ensure consistency within that framework.

What if one character’s dialogue uses contractions, but only that one? Chances are very high that it’s a choice on the writer’s part, as one method of characterization. The same goes for the character who speaks in flowery phrases. “I don’t hear X saying this” is a frequent comment I leave in the margins, when something sounds off to me.

We are the polishers of prose. The writer chisels form from a block of an idea; we come along afterward and sand off the roughness, adding a highlight here or there, chipping off a stray protuberance, making that work shine.

Honor the writer’s voice. Hear them, and make your suggestions in harmony with their words.

Split infinitives: Not wrong, sometimes preferable

I saw a generalization early this morning that got my dander up. The writer stated that “almost every style guide” says to avoid the split infinitive. To put it bluntly, that’s wrong; it’s a misrepresentation of what they actually say. That the post went on to explain and clarify doesn’t much matter when what people will remember is that initial statement: “Almost every style guide” says not to use it.

I’ve looked up “split infinitive” in The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago, the style guide I use) and on the website for AP, and then I checked Buzzfeed for good measure. After that, I went to the usage guides: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Garner’s Modern English Usage, Dreyer’s English (Dreyer), Words into Type, and Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

Not one of these sources says that a split infinitive is to be avoided at all times. In fact, every one of them says that not only is the construction grammatically correct, but it is also preferable to performing syntactical gyrations. There’s no reason to avoid using it when that usage is the clearest and changing it would alter the intended meaning of the sentence.

Furthermore, I’ll note here that the APA style manual, 7th edition, does not even mention split infinitives. As I said to someone in a Slack chat earlier, “APA does not recognize this as a problem.” (Yes, I was being snarky. Imagine that. Thank you to my colleagues DeAnna Burghart and James Fraleigh for being my reference checkers.) Rather, the manual refers users to “a trusted grammar reference” for questions about issues not covered. Which reference? That’s users’ choice.

The only place one might routinely consider avoiding the split infinitive is in the most formal writing, where the most readers are likely to think poorly of its presence (because they’re not grammarians, obviously). Annoying one’s intended audience is seldom if ever the best option.

I will quote only one source here, that being Chicago:

“Although from about 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate the to from the principal verb.” (Chicago 17th ed., 5.108)

“If the adverb bears the emphasis in a phrase {to boldly go} {to strongly favor}, the split infinitive is justified and often even necessary. . . . Recasting a sentence just to eliminate a split infinitive or to avoid splitting the infinitive can alter the nuance or meaning of the sentence.” (5.171)

The style guide most used by journalists, the venerated AP text, changed its guidance in 2019 in an admission that the split infinitive can aid comprehension and readability.

Of the usage guides, I will quote only from Dreyer, and that itself is a quote from Raymond Chandler:

“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.” (Dreyer, 1st ed., p. 11)

I can say without reservation that we are free to confidently split infinitives without fear of repercussions.

Chicago Manual of Style comes to PerfectIt 5

I honestly didn’t see how PerfectIt 4 could be improved upon. I’ve been using it since it came out. And I used PerfectIt 3 before that. I love, love, love this program.

Believe me when I say that Daniel Heuman and the team at Intelligent Editing have found a way to improve upon it.

When you get PerfectIt 5, you’re not only getting the kind of proofreading/copy editing support you’ve become accustomed to in the past, but if you have a subscription to CMOS online, then you’re also getting real-time support via the site (chicagomanualofstyle.org). When PerfectIt5 highlights stylistic problem areas, it also provides you with a live link to CMOS guidance.

If it’s something you already know and are comfortable with, something you’re sure about, of course you can ignore it and keep on trucking. However, if it’s something that makes you wonder whether you know what you thought you knew (and it happens to all of us!), just click on the link and you’ll see the “chapter and verse” about the issue. For example: “The term half brother is usually open. See more from CMOS 7.89”. Clicking the “see more” line brings up the relevant text directly from the CMOS site, with the numerals in bright red bold type.

For editors who are still learning the Chicago style, I’ll say this is nigh unto invaluable. No more wondering whether you’ve gotten it right. No more second-guessing yourself. And best of all, you’ll find you’re looking up fewer issues. Even for those of us used to using the online version, this is an improvement. The information will come up when we need it, at the precise point in our document where we need it. NB: This addition does not include the entirety of the CMOS database. There will still be times you’ll need to go to the book or the online version on your own.

The usual caveats apply as they do with any “checker” program. It’s better to be cautious and check each instance individually than cavalierly “fix all.” (Only when I can see “all” right there in one place do I ever even consider doing that.)

I say all of this as an editor who works only with fiction. I don’t have to think about heading hierarchies, tables, figures, footnotes, bibliography entries, and so on. If you do, I feel safe saying you will find this a godsend. The guidance will pop up immediately, right on your screen. No hunting through a print copy, no searching the website. It’s right there, and it will expand at the click of your mouse.

Congratulations, Daniel and team! You found a way to improve something I thought was already perfect.

[Disclaimer: I received a free one-year extension to my subscription for this review.]

More on using “a” or “an” before acronyms/initialisms

That’s a previous post about this subject. However, because this topic is evergreen, I can write more!

This question comes up regularly on social media. I’m not sure if that’s because it is actually that confusing or because people simply don’t read closely.

If the term in question begins with a consonant sound (not necessarily a consonant! It’s about the sound, not the letter!), use “a,” like this:

A friend who applied to be a CIA operative used me as a reference.

We use “a” because we say “see eye ay,” which begins with an S sound.

Look again at “an S sound.” Remember, it’s about the sound of the beginning letter, not the letter itself. Because “ess” (what we call that letter) begins with a vowel sound, we use “an” with “S.”

With the initialism “NYC,” I see both articles used even in text produced within the city itself. The article guides me, as a reader, toward the expected pronunciation. If I see “a NYC bistro,” I know I’m meant to read that as “New York City.” If I see “an NYC bistro,” I’m meant to read that as “an En-Why-See bistro.” People who live in NYC have strong opinions about which is correct. (Which way did you read it that time? There’s nothing to guide you; there’s also no right or wrong answer. At least not to me, there isn’t.)

Recently this question arose about the term “FAQ.” Within the IT community, it’s universally accepted as a word, pronounced like “fack”: Read the FAQ. Outside that group, opinions and practices vary. Some people say “eff-ay-cue,” which would necessitate using “an” if one required an indefinite article. Others say “fack,” which of course would take “a.” I wager nearly everyone who has ever ordered anything online has encountered “FAQ” at some point, usually in wording like “Questions? Read our FAQ before contacting us.” It’s not so much unfamiliarity with the term that’s the issue. It’s whether you’re inside the IT community, where it’s just a word and pronounced like one, or outside, where you don’t hear or use it regularly. (Disclosure: My spouse has decades of experience in IT. I learned early on that it’s “a FAQ.”)

Remember: It’s the sound of the letter, not the letter that makes the sound, that matters in choosing the indefinite article that will guide readers to the intended pronunciation.

Semicolons Make Connections

I was recently told by a workshop attendee that my explanation of how semicolons work was the first one that made any sense to them. I stuck that feather in my cap immediately. Now to see if I can recreate it in blog-post form.

When you use a semicolon, you’re making a connection. It’s not just the visible one on the page or screen; it’s also a connection of concepts, of ideas, of sense. That punctuation mark tells the reader, “Pay attention to what comes next, because it’s closely related to what you just read.”

Using a semicolon entirely incorrectly is pretty difficult to do. Most writers I know have an understanding of what’s connected and what’s not. They would not, for example, do this: “The ice cream truck stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac; a little girl was wearing an orange romper.” Those two ideas have no connection. The semicolon indicates that one exists, though, so we readers are left trying to “make connection happen.” And it won’t. That orange romper has nothing to do with the ice cream truck’s existence, arrival, or position. And the ice cream truck has nothing to do with the little girl’s clothing. That semicolon is simply incorrect.

Even if we rewrite the second independent clause (the part following the semicolon), it’s still a stretch to call it “connected” in the correct way. “The ice cream truck stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac; the first little girl to run out to meet it was wearing an orange romper.” Those are still two discrete ideas. The truck is still not connected to the little girl’s clothing, nor can it be. A semicolon just won’t work there.

Look back at the second paragraph, where I used a semicolon to connect two related thoughts. (Start with the second sentence in that paragraph.) We could use a period there, but it’s stronger to place a semicolon after the first independent clause. That tells the readers that what follows is directly related. In this case, it’s a further explanation of the connection. There’s the visible one, and there’s the ideological, syntactical, grammatical one.

Nothing says you must use semicolons. Some writers prefer not to, ever. That’s certainly a safe choice. Some people believe semicolons should never appear in fiction. I disagree. I suggest to my clients that they use them where it makes sense, even in dialogue. Remember, punctuation marks are to the reader as road signs are to the driver; they guide. They assist. They are meant to be used, not shunned or ignored.

There’s passive, and there’s passivity

It happened again. I was scrolling through my timeline on Twitter, and there I saw it: a tweet with a link to a post that claimed “she was walking” (I have changed the words, but that is the structure) is a passive construction.

No.

It is not a passive construction. The subject is “she” and the verb is the past progressive “was walking.” The subject is performing the action of the clause. That is active voice.

Now, if that read “She was being walked on a leash by her captor,” we’d have passive voice. Here, “she” is the subject of the sentence, but she is not performing the action. Her captor is. They have put a leash on her, and are walking her in the way one walks a dog. She (the grammatical subject) is the object, syntactically speaking. The captor (the object of the preposition “by”) is the actor (the syntactical subject) in the sentence.

The clause that caused me to write this brief post is not in passive voice. There is a passivity to it, yes; that’s a danger of “to be” verbs + participles. Sometimes, that’s what we want in a sentence. Sometimes it isn’t.

But it will never be passive voice, so long as the subject of the clause is performing the action.