The Economist Should Lighten Up and Split Some Infinitives

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Sept. 9 2013 10:43 AM

The Economist Should Lighten Up and Split Some Infinitives   

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The London offices of the Economist.

Photo by Alessandro Abbonizio/AFP/Getty Images

Curiously, writers for the Economist are required (required!) to construct unnatural sentences rather than risk the wrath of the semieducated public by "splitting an infinitive." Take, for example, the following sentence from an article this summer about Syria’s political opposition titled "Disarray":

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.

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Surely the most intuitive phrasing would put the adverb immediately before the verb it modifies: to unconditionally attend. Users of English do not generally place manner adverbs at the beginning of to infinitival clauses introduced by whether. Otherwise, we end up with sentences that sound awkward and clunky, at best. Judge for yourself, and notice that I’ve prefixed the following examples with an asterisk, which linguists use to tag ungrammatical strings of words:

*I wondered whether angrily to protest to the editors.

*The question for the Economist is whether immediately to change the policy.

*The style guide manager should think about whether voluntarily to retire or resign.

In the 44 million words of the 1987–1989 Wall Street Journal corpus, frequently used by computational linguists as a test bed, there is not a single occurrence of an -ly adverb between whether and infinitival to.

The Economist would do better to observe the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage in this matter. I often don't approve of the fussy Times guide, but although it is idiosyncratic, old-fashioned, and occasionally benighted, its guidance is slightly more liberal than the blanket ban that seems to be in effect at the Economist. Here’s what the Times says:

split infinitives are accepted by grammarians but irritate many readers. When a graceful alternative exists, avoid the construction: to show the difference clearly is better than to clearly show the difference. (Do not use the artificial clearly to show the difference.) When the split is unavoidable, accept it: He was obliged to more than double the price.

Note that the Times explicitly opposes the "artificial" pushing of preverbal adverbs into the position before the to. Also note that its advice to avoid splitting infinitives whenever possible is openly attributed to pure political cowardice. There is nothing grammatically wrong, they admit, but hush, it might "irritate" readers!

The Economist, for its part, has a style guide of its own, which is even more cowardly:

Split infinitives
Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.

Which might as well read:

Split infinitives
This mythical and pointless prohibition against a natural syntactic construction has never been defended by any serious grammarian; but observe it anyway, because we’re scared of our readers.

Is this a sensible way for a great magazine to make decisions about how its writers should use their native language? *Forcefully to argue yes would be foolish in my opinion.

A version of this post originally appeared on Language Log.

Geoff Pullum is professor of general linguistics in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. He is co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.