Syntactic Self-Harm on St. James’s Street


Economist Plaza, St. James’s Street, London

I love and admire The Economist; I itch for my copy to arrive each Saturday morning. But I have sometimes had to criticize the grammatical stipulations of that august magazine’s editors. At one point I actually ventured the opinion that they were deliberately trying to annoy me by using phrasings that they knew I would hate (Language Log, September 4, 2015). But I recently had a chance to discover whether such paranoia had any basis. Let me explain.

My sense of being personally goaded was stimulated by the subheadline “Of what is the universe really made?” in a science article. The absurdly awkward avoidance of preposition-stranding (the normal phrasing would be “What is the universe really made of?”) was so blatant that I felt they were trying to bug me: “The editorial nitpickers sit around in their fancy office building at 25 St James’s Street,” I wrote, “sipping coffee out of their little bone china Economist coffee cups, and say, ‘Let’s really get up Pullum’s nose; let’s see of what he is made.’”

They were baiting me, I conjectured, because I had repeatedly mocked their absurd allegiance to the zombie rule banning split infinitives. My 2012 Lingua Franca post “Rules That Eat Your Brain” noted that force it publicly to label itself was not a natural way to say “force it to publicly label itself.”

In another issue they had written decide whether unconditionally to attend the Geneva talks, which isn’t even grammatical. They meant “decide whether to unconditionally attend the Geneva talks” (Language Log, June 11, 2013).

A later issue had the inept phrase decision entirely to dismantle when the meaning was clearly “decision to entirely dismantle” (Language Log, July 20, 2015).

Yet another issue said “the government pressed the House of Commons swiftly” to overturn a franchise extension proposed in the House of Lords, when swift pressing wasn’t under discussion at all (Language Log, December 23, 2015).

Did the editors really hate me for mocking these instances of syntactic self-harm? I recently had a chance to find out: I had the privilege of visiting those very editors in the aforementioned fancy office building at 25 St James’s Street. My host was the staff member who writes the fortnightly feature on language under the nom de plume “Johnson.” He introduced me to several of his colleagues. We had coffee, and I discovered that they do not use bone china monogrammed coffee cups; they have plain, solidly chunky coffee mugs like ordinary people. And they don’t hate me at all: They were very friendly.

Moreover, I had noticed signs that they might be shaking off their phobia about split infinitives. I had spotted the clause the mogul is unlikely to ever be thrown behind bars 18 months ago (Language Log, November 30, 2014), and then when David Bowie died in January 2016 they permitted this sentence in their adulatory two-page obituary about him:

If he could so transform himself, what could make-up and attitude do for you — especially if you had outcast Ziggy, your leper messiah, to sexily show you the way?

It’s a bit overwritten, but at least sexily is nicely positioned. So I began to think things were improving, and The Economist and I were at last on the same grammatical wavelength.

However, long-established patterns of self-harm behavior are very hard to change. In the May 7th issue, the magazine has a relapse. The Asia commentator behind the alias “Banyan” discusses the interpretation of the accession agreement that brought China into the World Trade Organization, which allows nonmarket economies to be judged by a different standard to market economies when considering whether they should be punished with anti-dumping tariffs. China claims that its accession agreement guarantees its right to be treated as a market economy after December 2016. Banyan comments:

That is not, however, what the agreement says. Rather, it says that importing countries will lose the right automatically to treat China as a nonmarket economy for anti-dumping purposes.

I believe (as does reader Robert Ayers, who brought this sentence to my attention) that Banyan wants automatically to be understood as modifying treat China as a nonmarket economy, not as modifying lose the right. If this is correct, it is yet one more example of the magazine’s generally superb writing being marred by the ridiculous habit of treating adverbs after infinitival to like Ebola.

The logic is intricate enough that I cannot be entirely sure: Conceivably Banyan really did mean to allude to automatic loss of rights. Nothing could more clearly underline the disaster of mechanical split-infinitive avoidance by leftward adverb-shifting. The Economist’s indulgence in this practice has left me unable to decide whether to interpret its prose using English grammar or using the special pseudo-grammar of its split-infinitive-phobic style guide. They have created a new source of unclarity. That is surely the reverse of what obeisance to style rules is meant to achieve.

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