Rules That Eat Your Brain

Language Log discussions of what is categorized there as “prescriptive poppycock” often refer to zombie rules: Though dead, they shamble mindlessly on. The worst thing about zombie rules, I believe, is not the pomposity of those advocating them, or the time-wasting character of the associated gotcha games, but the way they actually make people’s writing worse. They promote insecurity, and nervous people worrying about their language write worse than relaxed people enjoying their language. Let me discuss a real-life case, a paragraph from a recent issue of The Economist. Note the ugly final sentence (in which I underline the relevant part):

The pressure on Mr Gudkov comes at a time when the state is pursuing a course of confrontation and intimidation against all opponents of Mr Putin. One front of that campaign is legislative, with the Duma—still a relatively feeble body that has a majority for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party—first passing a law to increase fines for unsanctioned rallies, and now considering a bill that would force any NGO receiving cash from abroad publicly to label itself a “foreign agent”.

The placement of the adverb spawns an unfortunate and unnecessary ambiguity: The sequence receiving cash from abroad publicly could easily be interpreted as referring to public receipt of cash (think of accepting a bulging sack of foreign banknotes on network TV). In the print edition of the magazine there happened to be a line break after publicly, which heightened the accessibility of this wrong reading even more.

But it is not the intended meaning. Receiving cash publicly is a total red herring. The article is trying to talk about public labeling. The bill under consideration forces any NGO receiving foreign cash to publicly label itself a foreign agent.

That would have been the right way to word things, with the adverb publicly immediately preceding the verb it modifies. Positioning it immediately after label is not possible, because the verb has a direct object, and verbs are not normally separated from their objects; worse, the direct object is actually a pronoun, which makes things even worse: *to label publicly itself a foreign agent is clearly ungrammatical. Putting the adverb right at the end (to label itself a foreign agent publicly), though grammatical, would put it too far from the verb and give it too much emphasis (as the last item in the verb phrase, it would carry major sentence stress). I suppose one could try interrupting the verb phrase with the adverb (to label itself publicly a foreign agent), but that doesn’t seem optimal. And in any case, hunting for workarounds like this misses my whole point: Why struggle like this to find avoidance strategies? A strong and confident writer would have put the adverb in the best place for it: between to and the verb.

“Split infinitive” is the term used for the legendary bogeyman we confront here. It is a misnomer: Since to and label are entirely separate words, nothing is being split. The verb phrase publicly label itself a foreign agent is just as suitable a host for the infinitival marker to as the verb phrase label itself a foreign agent.

Yet most educated Americans seem to believe that “splitting the infinitive” counts as some kind of mistake, unaware that every serious usage manual or grammar book clearly states otherwise.

My colleague Lucy Ferriss recently asked whether paying attention to the issue just might get some people “to look closely at their syntax and rethink for the sake of elegance and clarity.” That’s a worthwhile goal. I like elegance and clarity. If the don’t-split-the-infinitive rule encouraged rumination on achieving clear expression, I’d vote for it. But as far as I can see it does nothing of the kind. It just insists on a dumb fix that is as likely to make prose worse as to improve it.

I don’t know whether an Economist staff writer actually chose to write publicly to label itself. It seems more likely that a fussy copy editor changed it. But one way or another, cowards and weaklings, afraid to stand up against the prescriptive tyranny, yielded to ignorant prejudice, and produced worse prose as a result.

That’s typical of what zombie rules do. They eat your brain.

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