Thursday, October 25, 2007

To Boldly Split What No One Has Split Before...

Space: The final frontier.
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
Its continuing mission:
To explore strange, new worlds,
To seek out new life and new civilizations,
To boldly go where no man has gone before.
--Captain James T. Kirk

I confess--I'm a Star Trek fan. I have attended small-venue conventions and met cast members from all the Star Trek series except Enterprise. But you don't want to hear those stories. You want to hear what Star Trek has to do with language.

Well, it's all about the split infinitive. In my previous blog, Grammar "Policies" Masquerading as "Rules," I indicated that avoiding split infinitives is what I would consider a grammar policy, not a hard-and-fast rule. And the Star Trek prologue noted above doesn't just split an infinitive--it does so boldly.

An infinitive, simply put, is the to form of a verb: to run, to spit, to go, to get the picture. When an infinitive is split, an adverb is inserted between the to and the verb--in our Star Trek example, to boldly go is a split infinitive, with the adverb boldly inserted between the two halves of the verb to and go.

The problem is that the grammar we have such a love/hate relationship with derives from Latin, which was once thought to be THE language. Our grammarians thus tried to organize the structure of English to replicate the elegance of Latin.

But Latin does not have infinitives in the way we think of them, and therefore it was impossible to split them! Since Latin had no split infinitives, our grammarians decided that English shouldn't have them, either. As a result, avoiding split infinitives has been considered a rule by grammar purists; however, good reasons exist for using split infinitives. Don't get me wrong--I don't advocate splitting infinitives just for the sake of splitting them or splitting them unthinkingly. You should have a purpose for splitting them. Know the grammar policy before you bend it!

Acceptable reasons for splitting infinitives include
  • Emphasizing how something is done. When an infinitive is split, the emphasis rests on the word doing the splitting. In to boldly go, boldly receives the emphasis--since it is an interruptive force in the verb--but isn't that the point of the phrase? It isn't enough to go where no man has gone before--one should do it boldly!

  • Avoiding confusion. Sometimes, not splitting an infinitive leads to misplaced modifiers or other confusing problems. For example, "Joe decided to quickly move for a vote," where quickly splits the infinitive to move, means that Joe moved for the vote quickly after making the decision to do so. If we were to avoid splitting the infinitive and move the adverb quickly to a different place in the sentence, the meaning of the sentence changes. For instance, "Joe quickly decided to move for a vote" means that he made the decision quickly, but not that the motion for the vote was quick. Why avoid splitting an infinitive only to end up with a sentence that doesn't say what you mean?
One caveat: if your English instructor or your company style manual indicates that splitting infinitives should be avoided at all costs, it's smart to follow their guidance. But at least you can take secret delight in knowing that splitting infinitives is sometimes acceptable. And we can thank Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, for showing us how to boldly split them!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Grammar Policies Masquerading as Rules

As a college English professor, I find that many students come to the classroom full of grammar "rules" that they have been admonished to live by. Clearly traumatized by the blood-red ink on their essays and by indecipherable abbreviations such as awk scribbled in said pen blood, these students are greatly surprised when I tell them that it's okay to, say, split an infinitive. This surprise is quickly followed by wide-eyed panic as students leap to the conclusion that either their tight-bunned English schoolmarms of yesteryear lied to them or that my summer sausage has completely fallen off my cracker.

I suppose I see English teachers residing on a continuum: At one extreme are what I call the grammar purists (instructors who are unforgiving of broken--or even slightly bent--grammar "rules," no matter how nonsensical or archaic); at the other extreme, grammar organicists (instructors who see grammar as a language structure that changes and develops as society changes the language). In other words, a purist would scarcely survive being in a room where someone says, "It just ain't right," whereas an organicist wouldn't even blink an eye at the contraction that has been in the language since the early 1700s. A language purist would experience a massive coronary if her child said, "And I went, 'you're so lame,'" whereas an organicist would understand that went is youth-speak for said.

I see myself as a sort of grammar moderate, falling between the two extremes, probably because I recognize that since our grammar is essentially a language structure imposed upon English from Latin, it doesn't always work as well as it should. In fact, if one adheres strictly to grammar rules, we would all be walking around saying things like "A grammar handbook is something without which one cannot be." Come again? Adhering strictly to grammar rules often leads to difficult-to-interpret sentences, awkward phrasing, and unlovely language. I recognize that sometimes it is better to bend the grammar "rules" (or at times, break them) in order to achieve clarity, special emphasis, or just be able to hold a normal conversation with an audience without seeming overly formal. Additionally, language is organic--it changes over time--and therefore the grammar rules we once lived with may be a bit outdated.

So, by now you are probably wondering why I've been writing "rules" in quotation marks. I've done that because many purists will teach students grammar "rules" when what they are really teaching them are grammar policies--or rather, policies of style--designed to create clarity and help students avoid more serious grammatical problems.

For example, one grammar policy that is often promoted as a "rule" is that one shouldn't begin a sentence with the words and or but. And yet, one can begin a sentence with and or but that is grammatically correct--as I have done in this sentence. But English teachers have a reason for instituting this policy: following this policy prevents students from writing certain kinds of fragmented sentences, such as

Outside, it was raining. And snowing.

The second sentence isn't really a sentence at all--it's a sentence fragment, and should be combined with the first sentence:

Outside, it was raining and snowing.

Because instructors teach such policies as "rules," students avoid committing these grammatical sins, only to find in college that some of their instructors (although not all) encourage them to break the rules. It doesn't mean their previous English instructors were bad, or wrong, or even out to get them; rather, it was a way to ensure that the students stopped committing grammatical suicide.

Here are a few grammar policies that my students have faunched over:

  • Never begin a sentence with and or but.
  • Never split an infinitive.
  • Never dangle your participles.
Do any of these sound familiar to you? Have you been taught certain grammar "rules," only to find out later that they were actually policies? Share your story! Or, if you have a grammar question, feel free to post that, too. You never know--I might actually do a complete post about it!