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You’re Wrong and I’m Changing the Subject

How do senior copy editors at major newspapers, magazines, and publishers react when academics point out to them that their decisions about usage are decisively at odds with the evidence about what is grammatical in Standard English?

They often simply avoid discussing the matter. A copy editor for the academic publisher Lawrence Erlbaum, when asked why all occurrences of though had been changed to although in my prose, said she would allow me to stet them; but she refused to answer my polite inquiries about what could possibly have motivated the alterations.

And a senior editor at Cambridge University Press in New York ignored a courteous letter by Rodney Huddleston and me explaining in detail that the sternly enforced ban on restrictive relative which is due to a century-old misunderstanding. Months later she communicated via a third party that no answer to our letter would be forthcoming and there would be no change in policy.

But in a more interesting case recently, the response was first to deny the facts and second to change the subject.

I pointed out in a Lingua Franca post last August that The Economist will prefer a tortured and ambiguous botch like force any NGO receiving cash from abroad publicly to label itself a foreign agent over the grammatical and unambiguous force any NGO receiving cash from abroad to publicly label itself a foreign agent. Then on Language Log last week I noted an even more startling case:

The main umbrella organisation, the Syrian National Coalition, was supposed to do three things: expand its membership, elect a new leader and decide whether unconditionally to attend the Geneva talks.

Adverbs such as unconditionally (those functioning as manner adjuncts) do not occur between whether and infinitival to. To see this, search for whether unconditionally to on the Web. The only hits are the original phrase in The Economist and a scattering of international news sources citing or plagiarizing it, plus my Language Log piece, and one spurious example with prepositional to (whether unconditionally to God’s elect, or from God’s foresight). The web is telling us that “whether unconditionally to + Verb” essentially doesn’t occur at all.

By contrast, searching for whether to unconditionally yields over 6,000 idiomatic and fully grammatical “split infinitives” with “whether to unconditionally + Verb.”

Even the highly conservative New York Times style guide backs my position, warning against clumsy repositioning of adverbs into the position preceding infinitival to: “Do not use the artificial clearly to show the difference.”

An influential Economist staff member (and brilliant writer), responding through an intermediary, first baldly rejected the claim about ungrammaticality, on (surprisingly) musical grounds:

[Pullum] is definitely wrong. The original has the modifier in by far the most elegant and musical placement. “To unconditionally attend” is awful.

(She added that if Americans don’t like it, “that is too bad!”)

Then she changed the subject: “But the compromise solution, to put unconditionally AFTER the verb, is just as good.”

People always point to this “solution,” ignoring my point, which is that there’s no problem. Yes, adverbs can quite often be positioned late in the verb phrase: When I say that “split infinitives” are grammatical in English and always have been, I am not in any way implying that other adjunct positions are disallowed. But late placement is no panacea; it often gives an adverb too much emphasis. For example, It would be cruel to viciously beat such a beautiful dog is not improved by changing it to It would be cruel to beat such a beautiful dog viciously. Read the latter aloud. It sounds as if you mean only vicious beatings are cruel, and moderate ones are just fine.

And consider It was surely reasonable to at least consider adopting the policy. Moving the adjunct at least to any other position makes it sound as if it is modifying something other than the verb consider.

But this whole issue of the acceptability of postverbal adjuncts is off topic: I’m discussing the ungrammaticality (hence extreme rarity) of manner adjuncts between whether and to in closed interrogative infinitival clauses, and reminding The Economist that “split infinitives” are unanimously accepted by grammar reference books as grammatical, and attested throughout the past six centuries of literature.

Round and around we go: A linguist who points out false beliefs about Standard English to an editor, publisher, or usage pundit may be met by stony silence, rejection of the evidence, or changing of the subject. But not by reasoned discussion. Even The Economist, famed for advocacy of intellectual freedom and evidence-based inquiry, makes blind dogmatism the basis of the style and grammar requirements it foists on its excellent writers.

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