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Saturday, April 2, 2011

why the rules against split infinitives and final prepositions are silly

I have a bone to pick, so to speak. A grammatical bone. I have endured in silence - well, not exactly silence - but I have endured in blogging silence for some time, and cannot hold back my blog-rant any more. [Sorry about the probable boringness of what will follow.]

I do not believe that the rules against splitting infinitives or putting prepositions at the end of a clause have any kind of justification whatsoever.

Take that, eighteenth and nineteenth century grammaticians who had nothing better to do than make up rules that were completely inappropriate to the English language.

This breaking-point comes as I have received more comments from my supervisors on the chapters of my thesis. I am willing to admit that in some cases moving the adjectives or prepositions around may make for more elegant writing. However, the majority of the 'corrections' they have made sound unnatural, and much worse than the original sentences, even if they are correct according to the rules against splitting infinitives or placing prepositions at the end of a clause. And so, I bring to you an angry rant against two very stupid grammatical rules:

- These rules are utterly inappropriate to English. English is not like French; it does not have 'infinitives' in the same way. English is not like Latin, which does proscribe prepositions at the end of clauses.

The rules were made up by busybody grammarians in the 18th or 19th centuries who decided that English should be more like what they saw as the ideal (though dead) language, Latin. As Tina Blue says,

"Some of the 'rules' of English grammar that you learned in school were devised by pedants who believed that English was inferior to Latin and should be improved by forcing it onto the Procrustean bed of Latin grammar. But English is descended from an ancestral German dialect, not from Latin, and certain of the rules based on Latin grammar simply do not fit the structure of English."
[NB: English does have a relationship to Latin, especially in borrowed words - but Blue is correct in saying that the grammar of our language is descended more directly from German.]

According to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, the rule about prepositions seems to have been created in 1672 by John Dryden, and "repeated uncritically thereafter". The same goes for the split infinitive, although that was only debated for the first time in the 19th century.

- Every great author or writer has broken both rules (and many others) on numerous occasions. That is, unless they too subscribe to the ridiculous myth. For example, we can see the following authors splitting their infinitives:

"But I would come back to where it please me to live: to really live." - Ernest Hemingway
"Who dared to nobly stem tyrannic pride..." - Robert Burns
"Root pity in thy heart, that when it grows / Thy pity may deserve to pitied be..." - Shakespeare
"And so we proceeded to minutely examine them." - Bram Stoker
And then, of course, there's Star Trek's famous "to boldly go where no man has gone before". Thank goodness the writers of Star Trek were sensible. It sounds so much cooler than the alternative.

And, of course, most of us have heard versions of Winston Churchill's response to an over-zealous editor who wanted him to remove a preposition from the end of a sentence: "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put!"

As A Dictionary of Modern English Usage says,

"Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are 'inelegant' are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards." [quoted here]

- Most people who are actually qualified, intelligent grammarians refuse to accept the need for these rules. For instance, the Oxford University Press decided in 1995 that there is nothing wrong with the split infinitive.
Another expert, Edward D. Johnson, said in 1982 that the idea that a sentence cannot end with a preposition is a "superstition".
Meanwhile, the acknowledged expert in the field, H. W. Fowler, points out the fact that people who say the final preposition is wrong, when used as a phrasal verb, are actually just showing their own ignorance, because the final "preposition" in this context is actually an "adverbial particle"!
[NB: a phrasal verb is a verb that absolutely must have a preposition after it, in order to understand the meaning. For example, the verb "to put" completely changes its meaning when it is becomes "to put up" or "to put up with".]

- Of course there are times when using these principles makes a piece of writing better. But there are other times when the use of these rules simply obscures meaning or unnecessarily complicates a perfectly good sentence. Here is an example:

"The government expected unemployment to more than double in the next three years."

As Karl Craig points out, where else could you put "more than"?

- Because people push rules like this which don't matter, and which have no reflection in the language, it undermines the importance of other rules that do actually have some foundation, that actually affect the meaning of sentences.

- I can understand following these rules in formal settings, such as writing a cover letter for a job - just in case the person reading it is deluded into thinking your final preposition is bad usage and doesn't give you the job. However, I am starting to hate these rules SO MUCH that I feel we should all start making an effort to banish them forever. If the person who marks my thesis has a problem with my prose for these reasons, I'd rather contest his judgment afterward, explaining my reasons, than change something that is perfectly good beforehand.

- I just find it quite sad that children in schools are being taught silly rules, wasting their time, or writers who produce perfectly adequate work are being scorned for their use of these constructions. One of the coolest things about the real English language is its capacity for creative fiddling. I find it very, very sad that creativity is inhibited for no good reason.

Make the world a better place! Eschew these pointless rules! Long live the split infinitive! Long live the final preposition!

Here is something I did because I felt so mad!!!!!
Feel free to make it into a t-shirt or something :)

Sources I looked at:

General articles on grammar myths:
'Grammar Myths', by Karl Craig
Grammar Girl's 'Top Ten Grammar Myths'
Wikipedia on 'hypercorrection'

On prepositions:
The debate over Churchill's famous sarcastic usage of "up with which I will not put".
'Prepositions at the end of sentences: further explanation of why the "rule" is wrong,' by Tina Blue
'It's usually not wrong to end a sentence with a preposition', by Tina Blue
Grammar Girl on final prepositions

On split infinitives:
The Independent, on the OUP's decision to allow split infinitives, and the Queen's English Society's response
Wikipedia on split infinitives
"The so-called split infinitive"
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, on split infinitives

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