Everyone’s a critic: beware Muphry’s Law

OneDoesNotSometimes you see people taking to the streets, vigilante style, to right wrongs and solve the world’s problems, especially those very important problems, like grammatically incorrect graffiti. Sometimes, stories like this even make it around the world, as when a couple of grammar pedants in Quito, Ecuador, recently made news for The Guardian paper in the UK. They take their correcting cannisters and add accents, cut commas and modify misspellings.

Quito

I loved this story, even though the vigilantes in question have to carry out their crusade under the protective cover of darkness and behind Twitter handles like Diéresis (Spanish for ‘diaeresis’, the name of the two dots that go over the second vowel in a pair to signal a syllable change, such as in ‘naïve’) rather than their own names. It’s subversive stuff, correcting grammar in Ecuador. Despite the perils, they’re doing a public service – supplying corrected copy for the benefit of all those passersby and even the original poster, as it were.

It’s one thing to be pointing out errors in graffiti; the public shaming that goes on whenever someone makes a grammatical error on the internet seems another kettle of fish entirely. Judging by the number of memes about this, it appears to have become the fallback position of losing arguers (meme-counting is valid quantitative data collection, isn’t it?).

Muphry'sMemes

It can also get revoltingly rabid. Errors often arise from a literacy problem (but does anyone have the stats on how public shaming of poor literacy improves literacy? I thought not). But it’s not always about literacy: it turns out there is a reason why people who know that they know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ are still typing the wrong one. This research describes how our brains take shortcuts to get the job done, choosing high frequency routes sometimes over the correct route. For example, you might type ‘I’m going, to’ when you mean ‘I’m going, too,’ because you’re probably more used to typing ‘I’m going to [the shops/check/be there, etc.]’.

Both of these stories remind me of Muphry’s Law. You probably know of Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong); Muphry’s Law says that if you criticise the writing/editing/proofreading of a work, there will be writing/editing/proofreading mistakes in your criticism. Some time ago I saw an unfortunate instance of Muphry’s Law in action. Taped to the back of a toilet door on a university campus, I found an ad for an editor who was offering to help people with their assignments. Unfortunately, the ad itself had an error in it.

EditorError

This isn’t an exact example of Muphry’s Law, in that the editor wasn’t directly criticising any written work, but obviously there is an implication that student work will have errors and will therefore need editing.

You have only to go to any site about grammar or language use to find that Muphry’s Law is strong. Writing something about the state of grammar teaching in particular will bring out the critics in droves, each of them lamenting the old days when we could all parse a sentence and express our ideas with eloquence and grace, yet somehow failing to do it themselves. In the comments for this article from The Age about teaching grammar in schools I found someone who is not concise in urging writers to be concise:

I’m not a grammar nazi, like so many old fogies who have few other achievements in their lives to hang on to but understanding past perfect participles and wrestling subjunctives into submission, but as someone who wasted years trying to teach writing to uni students who didn’t know a noun from a verb, a subject from a verb, a comma from a hyphen or a sentence from a jumble of clauses or phrases, I am all for enough traditional grammar to enable people to say what they mean with clarity and conciseness.

And then there’s this, from a WBC picket notice:

WBC

Muphry’s law aside (which is always good for a laugh), shaming people on the internet for poor grammar or spelling is the least effective use of your time there. Instead, why not get some grammar giggles?

Mythbusting: To boldly split infinitives

To Boldly GoIf I had to pick a side in the descriptivist/prescriptivist non-war, I’d say I’m on the describers’ side. It’s not that I don’t like writing to vigilantly follow that follows the rules vigilantly – I do, in the same way I like to follow traffic light rules. Running reds isn’t good for anyone. And being in the business of encouraging wayward texts back to their original purpose means applying a little bit of ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’ to most things I see.

But unlike traffic light systems, writing has infinite capacity for subtle expression. The rules of writing should be understood and then applied with varying degrees of pressure, so that the ideas of a text are revealed rather than suffocated.

Enter: do not split infinitives.

This is one of those rules where people who were taught it believe it inviolable. While grammarians have long said there’s no requirement for this rule in English (see comparison with Latin, below), there are some good reasons to carefully split to be careful when splitting your infinitives.

What is a split infinitive?

An infinitive is the base form of a verb, the form that doesn’t change depending on which and how many people are doing the action. On its own it appears with the infinitive marker ‘to’: to eat, to run, to write. It can also appear with other verbs, in which case it can occur without its ‘to’ and is then called a ‘bare infinitive’: she did eat, they will run, he could always write. (Note that the prescriptivists never worry about splitting bare infinitives: ‘they will steadily run’, for some reason, doesn’t raise their hackles, whereas ‘to steadily run’ does.)

Infinitive here contrasts with finite verbs, which do change according to who and how many people/things are the subject of the verb. Compare ‘I do not agree’ with ‘he does not agree’, where the verb ‘do’ changes depending on the person, but the verb ‘agree’ stays the same no matter who or how many people are not agreeing.

A split infinitive is what happens when you split the word ‘to’ away from its verb by putting an adverb between them. The most famous example is Star Trek’s ‘to boldly go’.

What the writing guides say

Fowler (1926) divides the world into five classes of people, defined by what they know and what they do about split infinitives. One of his classes is made of the people who condemn the split infinitive without fully understanding it; these ‘bogy-haunted creatures’ think ‘to be really understood’ is a split infinitive (it’s not, because the verb ‘to be’ has not been split; ‘understood’ is the complement of the verb).

Less colourfully, the modern edition of Fowler describes the history of the split infinitive, saying that despite the earliest examples of it dating from the thirteenth century, some writers remain so reluctant to use it that they contort their sentences into painful ambiguity to avoid it. This edition says that while adverbs are most commonly placed before the full infinitive, examples abound of where they can be used to split infinitives to improve clarity for the reader or for stylistic reasons.

Strunk & White suggest avoiding split infinitives unless you want to unusually stress to put unusual stress on the adverb. But they also say that ‘the split infinitive is another trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook’, because some phrases that follow this rule to the letter just sound awkward: ‘I cannot bring myself really to like her’ would be better written in the form ‘I cannot bring myself to really like her’.

The Australian Style manual explains that objections to split infinitives were to do with trying to make English follow Latin, where the infinitives are single words, for example ‘amare’, that cannot be split.

Grammar Girl says the English-emulating-Latin argument is frequently given, but that one of the first times the rule appeared in print was when Henry Alford, in his 1864 book The Queen’s English, said we should not split infinitives because it went against common usage. He was answering a correspondent who said that he split infinitives by putting adverbs between the ‘to’ and the verb, to which Alford said – ignoring all the evidence before him – that this practice was ‘entirely unknown to English speakers and writers’. Anyway, Alford’s argument made its way into education and stayed there, even though people starting arguing with him about it at the time, and Fowler’s ‘bogy-haunted creatures’ pronouncement came in 1926.

What’s the problem then?

You may have guessed that my position on the split infinitive is to freely split it with grammatical impunity. I’m very against the ‘thou shalt not’ argument in this instance. However, there are reasons to be careful with your infinitives.

One thing to watch out for is that you don’t irritate a reader by putting a lot of information between the ‘to’ and its verb: ‘We want to through the bathroom window and with the utmost silence sneak into the house.’ A better construction would be ‘We want to sneak into the house through the bathroom window and with the utmost silence’. Infinitive intact.

Another reason for exercising care is that moving adverbs around changes the meaning of the sentence. Compare:

  • ‘I have decided promptly to address the issue you mention’ – this is ambiguous, as it’s unclear if ‘prompt’ goes with ‘have decided’ or with ‘to address’.
  • ‘I have decided to promptly address the issue you mention’  – this contains a split infinitive, but now it means that the issue will be addressed promptly, which is probably the intended meaning.
  • ‘I have decided to address promptly the issue you mention’  – this is awkward, and an example of bogy-haunting (I’m going to squeeze in one more of those, just watch).
  • ‘I have decided to address the issue you mention promptly’  – this is again ambiguous:  ‘promptly’ is sticking to the nearest verb, ‘mention’, although it could also be modifying the whole phrase ‘to address the issue you mention’.

Lastly, you should be careful if you suspect that a reader who has power over you will find your split infinitives objectionable, such as in the case of job applications. You can often avoid the whole issue altogether by recasting the sentence:

‘I have decided that I will promptly address the issue you mention, so as to avoid all bogy-haunting consequences.’

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Sources

Alford H. 1864. The Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling. Strahan & Co. London.
Birchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.
Grammar Girl. 2010. Split infinitives. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/split-infinitives?page=all.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Strunk W Jr and White EB. 2000. The Elements of Style. 4th Edition. Longman. New York.
and the image: http://thegreatcanadianmodelbuilderswebpage.blogspot.nl/2013/05/enterprise-to-boldly-go.html

Mythbusting: don’t use ‘and’ or ‘but’ to start a sentence

angry-teacher-pointingC

Many people were taught in school not to begin a sentence with and or but. The rule they were taught was ‘don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction’. This rule is a myth. It has no basis in grammar, nor in usage.

But first: a conjunction is a word that joins two (or more) words, phrases or sentences together, usually parts of speech that are the same:

noun + noun:                     The cat and the dog

adverb + adverb:             They walked quickly but quietly.

You can see that these parts have equal status, that is, they are coordinating. Conjunctions can also join sentence parts so that one is subordinate to the other:

conjunction of condition:             We’ll go to the beach unless it rains.

conjunction of time:                     After the beach, it will be ice-cream o’clock.

Coordinating conjunctions are a small set called the fanboys: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. These are the ones people are worried about using at the beginning of a sentence. The problem, apparently, is that a conjunction is supposed to have something either side of it so a reader understands that two things are joined together. If there’s a full stop on one side of it, the reader feels confused.

This idea fails to take into account that all text is connected, and sentences do not make meaning on their own, but only in context of the sentences that come before and after them. Consider the different meanings of ‘Ariadne was dead’ when the preceding sentences are ‘Months of chemotherapy had failed to save her beautiful mother’ or ‘He took Spartalus and raised the shimmering blade, then felled the monster in a single blow’. We know that Ariadne is the beautiful mother or a monster purely through the context of what came before.

There are often signposts that make these links explicitly to create cohesion and coherence, providing shortcuts to previous ideas so readers can follow the whole story. For example, pronouns refer to nouns that were previously mentioned, possibly in the current sentence, possibly in the last or even some sentences ago.

A coordinating conjunction between two sentences helps a reader keep two complete ideas, rather than merely two items in a list, connected. Here is an example from a report about climate change:

This is useful because it gives an indication of the possible direction of ecological change. But vegetation change is known to be a slow process that will lag rapid climate change … (Dunlop et al. 2012, p. 12)

In these two sentences, removing the ‘but’ would remove the link for the reader that while ‘this’ is useful (where ‘this’ refers to the content of the previous three or four sentences which is elegantly referred to here with just the one demonstrative) there are still problems to be considered.

Subordinating conjunctions are also proscribed as being sentence starters by some people for the same reason of needing elements on either side. A subordinating conjunction, however, modifies the subordinate clause wherever it is in the sentence.

We went to the beach because it was hot.

Because it was hot, we went to the beach.

You can see that there is no problem starting a sentence with a conjunction in this way.

But don’t just believe me! What do the sources say about this?

The strictest, most traditional source I could find on this was the one that dictates journalistic style, the AP Stylebook, whose online ‘Ask the editor’ pages say:

Q. Is it acceptable in AP style to start a sentence with “and” or “but”? I know there’s some argument in the grammar community in general, but I was curious regarding your position on it. – from Boston on Thu, Feb 07, 2013

A. It’s not forbidden. And works well in some instances. But best done sparingly.

Q. I know that starting a sentence with “and” is acceptable, but the writers I work with always seem to set it off with a comma. It seems unnecessary. Is it? Thanks! – from Carlsbad, Calif. on Wed, Jul 06, 2011

A. And shouldn’t be set off in every instance to start a sentence. It depends on what follows, and best not overused.

Note also that the Australian English Style Guide says that 40% of the time but appears in Australian newspapers it is as a sentence opener (p. 102). The (Australian) Style manual for authors, editors and printers says it’s fine to use conjunctions to begin sentences (pp. 69, 72–73).

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style says the problem to avoid with conjunctions is having a whole series of sentences that consist of two clauses where the second is introduced by a conjunction. This structure is boring, and it makes your readers go to sleep. It is overdone by many writers, and their work is harder to read. Strunk and White call this ‘loose sentences’, and they caution against it. I’ve done it three times now, and this is the fourth. I’ve written about this before, and here is the link.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage revised 3rd edition says that ‘there is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with and, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards … the OED provides examples from the 9C. to the 19C., including one from Shakespeare’s King John’ (p. 52). Fowler’s first edition, from 1926, doesn’t even mention this as a problem.

Of but, Fowler’s says ‘The widespread public belief that but should not be used at the beginning of a sentence seems to be unshakeable. Yet it has no foundation’ (p. 121). Again, the first edition doesn’t mention it as a problem; in fact, it uses but to begin a sentence in explaining another point of but’s misuse.

What’s the problem?

If all these sources say it’s fine to use conjunctions to begin sentences, including and and but, why have generations of schoolchildren been told they can’t? The Little, Brown Handbook (p. 340) says it’s because it’s easy to write a sentence fragment when beginning a sentence this way, and that is an error:

We went away on Friday. *And discovered the new cafe.

The content of the book was fascinating. *But written in too small a font.

We went to the beach. *Because it was hot.

We’ll go to the beach. *Unless it rains.

(Note that while sentence fragments are not allowed in formal writing, they are often used in fiction to create a sense of urgency or economy of style.)

Feel free to use conjunctions to start your sentences. If you’re worried that your audience thinks you’re making a mistake (even though you are not), direct them to some of the sources I’ve listed here to back up your case or think about how you might rephrase the sentence. And remember that conjunctions help create cohesion. But maybe don’t overdo it.

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Sources

AP. 2013. AP Stylebook Online. Apstylebook.com.
Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Dunlop M, Hilbert DW, Ferrier S, House A, Liedloff A, Prober SM, Smyth A, Martin TG, Harwood T, Williams KJ, Fletcher C and Murphy H. 2012. The Implications of Climate Change for Biodiversity Conservation and the National Reserve System: Final Synthesis. A report prepared for the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, and the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship, Canberra.
Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.
Fowler HR and Aaron JE. 2007. The Little, Brown Handbook. Pearson Longman. New York.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Strunk W Jr and White EB. 2000. The Elements of Style. 4th Edition. Longman. New York.
And the image: http://images.elephantjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/angry-teacher-pointing.jpg