Go Ahead. Do It. Split It!

We all remember that adamant injunction from our school days: “Never split an infinitive.” I’ve read that this rule comes from the prescriptive pedants who were brought up on Latin. In Latin, of course, you can’t split an infinitive . . . because it’s one word. But we’re not ancient Romans. The best writers always throw out the rules when it serves their purposes.

Lately I have been reading Letters of E. B. White (which I highly recommend). And White, who everyone agrees was a great prose writer, reminds us over and over that our ear – not dusty grammar rules – should be our guide in writing. Orwell also told us, in “Politics and the English Language,” that we should break the rules of grammar and usage rather than say anything outright barbarous. So if it sounds better to split an infinitive, just go ahead and split away.

Here’s an example. Suppose you went to a party and indulged in way too many adult beverages. The next morning your wife asks you, “Do you remember what YOU did last night?” Casting back in your mind, you find a glaring blank. All you have are a gigantic headache and inexplicable bumps and bruises.

So you repent of your mysterious misdeeds and make a promise to your wife. You tell her, emphatically, “I vow never to do that again!”

Nah, there’s no punch in that.

What you would say is this: “I vow, so help me, to never, ever do that again!” Much better. (She might actually believe that.)

So, in the matter of splitting infinitives, let your ear guide you. Read it out loud, and if it sounds better to split your infinitive, then split it.

Let’s talk . . . 

In Memoriam – For My Old Friend the Colon Who Has Passed and Been Supplanted by a Redundant Imposter

Two elegant little dots, one poised precariously over the other, suspended and balanced In Memoriam: The Colonand slightly portentous, together pleasingly symmetrical, ready to birth the following illustration or expansion: that’s my old friend the colon. But she’s gone now.

And now – now – in her place is that horizontally harsh dash – who has no elegance or balance or beauty. He’s just a harsh, informal line trying to do the job of my old literary friend. So . . . rest in peace, my friend.

Even worse my elegant and useful companion is suffering usurpation by a colon pretender: one who looks like my friend, but can’t do the job properly. For example:

There are a great many things wrong with modern writing and punctuation, such as: sentences that are too short and choppy, sloppy diction, and an unwarranted familiarity.

No, no, and again no. It should read this way:

There are a great many things wrong with modern writing and punctuation: sentences that are too short and choppy, sloppy diction, and an unwarranted familiarity.

Why? Because my friend the colon will do the job of the such as: there is no need for both. If you want to use such as, then leave my elegant friend alone. Do not try to pretend that she is this redundant pretender. Get thee behind me, imposter.

I’ll bet Mr. Blake, who could find a world in a grain of sand, could find a great deal in my friend’s two dots. But, alas, we’ll never know now.

Let’s Talk . . .