mercredi 4 juin 2008

Gramma Nazi

I sent this message to one of my friends who runs a publicly trampled blog. Sometimes posters get all bent out of shape about grammar:

I’ve been stewing over your latest harasser, the so-called writing expert, who faulted you for ending a sentence with the word “to”.

I’ve also been stewing over your reply to my post on the famous quip by Churchill, i.e., that you had been accused of “splitting an infinitive”.

I don’t want to split hairs, but I think both you and your silly detractor are wrong. In fact, the rule was never that a sentence must never end with the word “to”. The rule, which appears to have originated in the 18th century and which was born mostly of a desire to make the English language more rule-bound and rigid, was that a sentence must not end with a preposition—whether it be “to” (which also happens to be the first word of the infinitive form of verbs), “of”, “with”, etc.

Splitting an infinitive, on the other hand, is the crime of taking this infinitive form and placing an adverb between “to” and the main verb. The most famous modern example is the Star Trek line: to boldly go.

In fact, most grammarians and linguists think that neither of these faux pas are wrong most of the time. Indeed, following either rule can lead to wooden prose at best and confusion at worst. Today, most people realize that the rule about never ending a sentence with a preposition is an affectation. I think one reason we have let go of this rule over time is that the English language has so many phrasal verbs (get up, get over, get off, get on and on and on…), which cause students of our language much pain.
Let me ask you: Is there anything wrong any of the sentences below?

Whenever my dog jumps up on my new leather sofa, I tell her to get down.

I always feel bad when I discover I have been lied to.

I find his behavior increasingly difficult to put up with.

Ten minutes before the concert, the hall began to fill up.

This is a minor grammatical issue that many people still fight over.

The late, great Kingsley Amis called the rule about prepositions "one of those fancied prohibitions dear to ignorant slobs." Maybe he overstated the case. But the point is, excellent writers not only dare to boldly split infinitives on occasion, they also sometimes start sentences with conjunctions and end them with prepositions when they want to.