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.

Pronouns, politeness, and paying attention

There’s been a lot of chatter of late about pronouns. I’m not here to engage in the discourse (that sounds so lofty, don’t it?) about the singular they as applied to a specific individual who uses it to refer to themself. To be sure, that is a topic of great interest, and it generates discussion, but that’s not why I’m here right now.

My topic at this moment is twofold: Why does one need to pay attention when examples are provided in a discussion? And what is the best way to steer that discussion in another direction, if that is your desire?

I semi-regularly beg people to stop hypercorrecting because they had the fear of [insert deity of choice here] put into them in elementary school by some teacher or other (mine was Mrs. Dentler) that when one is speaking of oneself and another person or persons, one always puts oneself last. That is, one always is to say “James and I are going to dinner” and never “I and James are going to dinner.” In that construction, one needs the nominative (also called subjective) case pronoun, “I,” because it is part of the subject (which in this situation is compound, comprising “I and James”). I’m here to tell you that lightning will not strike you down for putting “I” first in such a construction. Politeness is a nicety, not a rule. There’s nothing grammatically wrong with “I and James.”

When I discuss this on Twitter, I leave out the subjective discussion because that isn’t the issue; it’s not the point. I see no need to muddy the already turbid waters with something that isn’t part of the problem. The point is, one does not say “Please join I for dinner.” (I can say without hesitation I have never heard anyone say this.) Therefore, one also does not properly say “Please join James and I for dinner.” (And yet, people DO say this.) The pronoun you want there is “me.” You can also say “us,” if you like. There are many ways to say things in English, many of which are utterly correct and standard. I am focusing here on the I/me problem. The hypercorrection is the use of the subjective “I” when the construction calls for the objective “me.” I see this regularly in public-facing writing from people and companies I feel should know better. (I hold them to a higher standard. I expect standard grammar and usage from, say, a publishing company or an elected official. More the fool me, I suppose.)

I have linguist colleagues who have discussed this at length, and I fully appreciate their input. What I don’t appreciate is someone deciding that I am wrong for not also discussing the subjective pronouns at length in what would become, of necessity, a pretty hefty thread, and then being passive-aggressive about it. That is a bad look, folks. If you want to talk about the subjective pronouns, have at it on your timeline. Knock yourselves out. But quote-tweeting me or anyone in order to attempt to prove me or them wrong, somehow, is not a good move. (Especially if you’ve had no interaction with the person you decide to take to task, before doing this.) Asking a question is far better. “What about ‘Julio and me are going to the store?’ Isn’t it supposed to be ‘Julio and I’?”

When we see examples provided in a discussion, it’s a good idea to pay attention to how they are constructed. If all the examples show objective case pronouns, why would the discussion be about subjective case? Think about reading entries in a style guide. The examples elaborate on the specific rule/guidance in the entry. Sometimes examples read a little strangely (“Why would anyone say that?”), but they’re constructed to provide instruction on a particular issue. The examples I provide support the topic under discussion, not something different (even if it’s related).

So, let’s recap.

“James and I are going out for drinks.” Standard, subjective case

“I and James are going out for drinks.” Standard, subjective case, perhaps less polite

“Please join James and me for dinner.” Standard, objective case

“Please join me and James for dinner.” Standard, objective case, perhaps less polite

“James and me are going out for drinks.” Nonstandard, objective case in subject position

“Me and James are going out for drinks.” Nonstandard, objective case in subject position, perhaps less polite

“Please join James and I for dinner.” Nonstandard, subjective case in object position, hypercorrection

“Please join I and James for dinner.” Nonstandard, subjective case in object position, hypercorrection, perhaps less polite

I trust that I have satisfied everyone who feels I need to address more than one topic at a time. And whether I have or not, they can join me (not “join I”) for drinks at a conference sometime, when it’s safe for us to do that again.

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.

Grammar Is Overrated: The Director’s Cut

But seeing as the director is an editor, this won’t be so much an expanded version of the article I wrote for the Winter issue of “Tracking Changes” (the ACES house organ) as it will be a more finely tuned version. I think. Maybe. Let’s find out.

When I say grammar is overrated, I’m not saying “throw it out.” I’m not saying we don’t need it. We absolutely do, or literally couldn’t string two words together and have them make any sense at all—okay, that’s more properly syntax, but let’s not split hairs here. As editors and writers (the groups making up the bulk of my followers here and on Twitter), we definitely need grammar and syntax.

The thing is: We already know most of what we need to do our jobs. My point in that article was that it isn’t a requirement to take courses in linguistics and “deep grammar” and the like in order to be an editor. Those of us drawn to that profession already possess the basics we need. We know about nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and such (the parts of speech, as they’re called). We know about parts of a sentence (subject, predicate, predicate nominative/adjective, adverbial phrase/clause, direct/indirect object, blah blah blah). This is the stuff we were taught—perhaps not very well, admittedly—in elementary, middle, and high school. (I’m old. I got it in every grade, from first through twelfth.) And, to be honest, knowing this level of grammar/syntax is enough to be a good editor, especially when you’ve got that affinity for words. When you’re driven to find out how they function, how they work. That drive might lead you to taking classes to deepen your understanding, and that’s great! But it’s not a requirement for being an editor.

We have to be able to communicate to our clients about the problems we find in their work, in words that they’ll comprehend. Now, I work with indie authors. Some of them know grammar, some don’t. I can’t always tell a client “There’s a problem with this subordinate clause.” Their eyes will glaze over. What I can say, though, is something like “This highlighted bit here isn’t doing what you think it is.” And then I can suggest an alternative, and with any luck at all they’ll see the difference and either use my suggestion or come up with their own (Option C, as one client calls it).

I can, however, be fairly confident of telling a client “We need to work on your pronoun usage” and having them understand. Too many proper nouns and too few pronouns in a given sentence or clause is a common problem. The concept of referents (the words to which the pronouns refer) isn’t difficult, so when I say there isn’t a clear one, most of my clients get it. I also tend to leave fairly detailed comments; it’s the former teacher in me.

The point is this: We have to be able to talk to clients about their writing, using terminology they will understand, so they can improve. Throwing around terms like “fronted adverbial” (which sounds quite intimidating, until you realize it’s an adverb of some kind that comes first in the sentence) doesn’t do a lot of good. And let’s just not bother with things like “conditional past subjunctive in the third.” Only the true grammar nerds (or geeks if you prefer) will get that one. Learning the esoteric aspects of grammar and syntax is a fabulous thing, a wonderful indulgence. Just remember: If you can’t explain it to your client in terms they will understand, it isn’t of much use to them.

Verb trouble (#1 in an occasional series)

I’ve seen it again in the last few days, so I’m writing about it.

“I have never nor will I ever eat kidneys.”

Looks okay to some of you, I’ll bet. Others of you stopped to parse the sentence and found it wanting. Specifically, it’s wanting another form of “to eat” to go with “have.”

What we need is this:

“I have never eaten nor will I ever eat kidneys.”

Why? Because, if you take the clauses apart, you’ll see you end up with “I have never eat.” And we know that’s incorrect, grammatically. (We know that, don’t we?)

When you’re writing about things that happened in the past in conjunction with those things happening in the future, you have to watch your main verb forms. I don’t see problems with the auxiliary (helping) verbs, but I see them often with the main ones. If it’s difficult for you to work with this within the single sentence you’re trying to write, try writing the two clauses separately at first and then combine them.

“I have never eaten kidneys.”

“I will never eat kidneys.”

See there, how there’s a different verb form in each sentence (independent clause)? When we combine them, we have to retain those forms to be grammatically correct (and keep our copy editors happy). Put them together and you get “I have never eaten nor will I ever eat kidneys.” Sure, there’s some position-swapping required, and “kidneys” appears only at the end of the whole sentence, and you’ve used “nor” as the conjunction to join the clauses. That’s all good stuff.

Unlike kidneys, which I can tell you are vital to our daily functions but to my taste are not very good.

“Underlay” is the underlying issue

I won’t rehash the lay/lie issue, except to remind you that “to lay” is transitive (taking an object) and “to lie” is intransitive (not taking an object). The problem here today is that “underlay” and “underlie” are both transitive verbs, so knowing how lay/lie work will do you no good whatsoever except to help you know how to spell the tenses.

(Full disclosure: I got myself so confused during a recent project that just today I emailed the client and told them to ignore the changes I’d made to “underlain,” because it turned out I was wrong. I own my mistakes.)

So. We have “to underlay,” meaning “to put something under another thing” or “to provide a base or a support for a thing.” And we have “underlie,” meaning “to be under or below something” or “to be the basis of or support for a thing.”

Underlay, underlaid, underlaid, underlaying (cf. “lay”)

Underlie, underlay, underlain, underlaying (cf. “lie”)

Let’s give this a shot, shall we? Say we have a construction crew, and they’re working on the flooring in a given room. They underlay the carpet padding on top of the plywood subfloor, before putting down the carpeting.

This leads us to saying “Carpet padding underlies the carpeting proper.”

Let’s take it another step, into the simple past tense. Yesterday the crew underlaid the padding for the carpeting. The padding underlay the carpeting.

One more step, into past perfect/pluperfect tense. The crew had underlaid the padding last month but didn’t get to the carpeting until today. Years from now, a CSI specialist will note that the padding had underlain the carpeting. (That’s a crap sentence, but at least the tense is right. Making up exemplars is a pain in the arse.)

Now, to the thing that tripped me up so badly: what do we use when we want to say something formed the basis of something else, as in provided support? As in: “The scent was [underlaid/underlain] by a sour note.” Well, that sour note wasn’t put there as a support; it forms the basis for that scent. We want underlain here. Turn the sentence inside out by making it active: “A sour note underlies the scent.” It provides the basis for it by virtue of its existence.

If someone or something physically places a thing to provide support for another thing, they underlay it. If a thing provides support by its existence, it underlies the thing it supports. Both verbs are transitive. Figuring out the tenses isn’t so difficult, once you have that difference in your head.

Look for the helpers (verbs, that is)

I’ve seen this issue popping up in various places of late, so I decided to explain how to avoid it in your own work. When you want to combine tenses in a sentence to talk about something that’s been going on for a while and continues to do so, you have to be careful about the helping (auxiliary) verbs. Let me show you.

“They had and are still being treated that way today.”

What the hypothetical writer wanted to say was that a kind of treatment had occurred in the past, and is still happening now. But what they wrote is ungrammatical and unclear. They had what? What does that “had” connect to, syntactically? Is there an object missing (what did they have)? Is it supposed to connect to “treated” somehow? “They had treated” surely isn’t what the writer meant. Look at the correction that follows.

“They had been and are still being treated that way today.”

[Here is where I point out that I am creating sentences as examples of a particular grammatical problem. They aren’t great writing. I might suggest an edit if I encountered either of them in a project. However, they serve the purpose for which they were created.]

In this particular case, we need to say “been” to go with the “had” in the first part of the compound verb, and hold on to the “being” in the second part. “Had been” and “are being” both fit with the past participle “treated.” We can’t get away with just the “had” auxiliary (you recognize it, right? The past form of “have”?) when we want to also use “are being treated” in the same sentence.

Now, here’s something to consider. If you don’t use “had,” you can use the auxiliary “be” in the forms “were” and “are being” with the past participle “treated.”

“They were and are still being treated that way today.”

It’s all the same verb, “be.” It’s just in different forms: were, are being. Bigger trouble comes in when you want to use different auxiliaries with the same main verb, as with “had been” and “are being.” You’re using “have” and “be” with a conjunction, so you have to be cautious about their forms.

If you’re reading a news article or blog post and you stop after encountering such a construction because the meaning is unclear, examine it. Work out what should have been written instead. Chances are good there’s a verb form problem hidden in what is (or rather, what should be!) paired with the auxiliaries.

Now’s a good time to remind you of what those auxiliaries are. There are three main ones with conjugations, and nine modals. Here we go.

Be (be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being)

Do (do, did, done)*

Have (have, has, had, having)

The modals are: can, could, may, might, ought to, shall, should, will, and would. These are not conjugated further. Can/could, may/might, shall/should, and will/would are already present/past forms. (And you wonder why we get so confused talking about when things happen, having to use a past form to discuss a future event . . .)

As always, if you have a question, please comment. I’ll answer to the best of my ability. Thanks for visiting.

*Hey, why isn’t “doing” in this list? Hmm . . . I wonder . . .