Monthly Archives: October 2013

To helpfully clarify, to better communicate: a history of the split infinitive

As constantly happens in the history of language, the old order of things is changing. … The practice of inserting an adverb between the infinitive sign and the infinitive has steadily increased during the last hundred years, and goes on increasing still.

– Thomas Lounsbury, 1908

A tiny band of Japanese soldiers, stationed on an island in the Philippines, kept fighting for many years after World War II had ended because they refused to believe that their side could possibly have lost.

The war against the split infinitive is still being fought, even though the cause was lost long ago.

One of those who battles on, in denial of this ancient defeat, is Neville Gwynne. Last Monday he told Radio 4’s World at One:

The wrongness of the split infinitive is about as old as English itself. It dates back to about 1500 or something, and is based not on Latin but the fact that English is a German language, and you don’t split the infinitive in German beginning with “zu”…

The split infinitive was not even used in 1485, Shakespeare never used it. It was never used until the 19th century, when Fanny Burney wrote her whole lot of books where she always split her infinitives. Nobody sort of took her line on it, and it has been absolutely regarded as unacceptable ever since. And not because it’s an arbitrary rule … you split an infinitive, you’ve made a mistake. …

Grammar is a science which has been identified century after century by grammarian after grammarian, and they’re all agreed on what the science is and there’s always a good reason for any particular rule, and that is why that rule is stuck with.

Almost all of this is wrong. Continue reading

Pedantry is flagging

flagOn Radio 4’s Broadcasting House this morning, Paddy O’Connell interviewed Graham Bartram, Chief Vexillologist of the Flag Institute. I enjoyed discovering that the study of flags has such a pretty name, but more than that, I relished their discussion as a masterpiece of linguistic myth-busting.

They were talking about the name of my country’s flag, widely known as the Union Jack, except among those who insist that the Union Jack flies only at sea and that on land it’s called the Union Flag.

O’Connell: So, the argument has been: the Jack flies on a specific ship on a specific place, and the Flag flies on land.

Bartram: Well, that’s what some people say, but in fact the two terms have been used throughout history completely interchangeably. There are royal proclamations that say Union Jack, there are royal proclamations that say Union Flag, and sometimes when they say Union Jack they’re referring to land, and sometimes when they say Union Flag they’re referring to sea. So I think it’s up to you to decide what you want to do.

Bartram quoted a couple of proclamations from James II in the 1660s, showing Jack and Flag used the same way.

They then moved on to the nature of the supposed rule that Bartram was debunking. O’Connell perfectly played the part not of the rule-monger but of the ordinary person who vaguely assumes that some sort of rule-mongering must be right. Much of what follows could have appeared in any number of conversations about correctness in language:

O’Connell: When did it become convention for vexillologists to prefer Jack and Flag as two distinct items, or two distinct designs?

Bartram: I think it’s probably in Victorian times that they actually decided, that certain vexillologists decided that it should properly be called one thing in one circumstance and properly called something else in another circumstance. I think the Victorians were very keen on having rules about everything.

O’Connell: Well, so are some of our listeners. What are you doing to these rules?

Bartram: We’re not doing anything to them, we’re just saying these rules are made-up.

O’Connell: By you?

Bartram: No, no. They’ve been made up by just people writing one thing in a book, and people then read it and say ‘that’s the law’ when in fact it’s not the law.

O’Connell: Are you seeking to do what the Oxford English Dictionary did with “literally”, which was to say we could use it figuratively? You’re backing the public: if they say Jack, that’s a Jack, or a Flag.

Bartram: We’re backing the fact that the flag has no official name, and you can call it a Flag or you can call it a Jack, and which one you use is entirely up to you.

Towards the end of the programmes, O’Connell put a few listeners’ points to Bartram, including this one:

We need to know the difference between the Union Flag and the Jack because it’s useful to know how knowledgeable someone is to get an idea of whether they know what they’re talking about.

Bartram basically repeated himself. But this is the purest expression I’ve ever seen of pedantry as social ideology: that observance of fiddly little so-called rules is a marker of status.

As I’ve said before, the right way to be right is to find out the facts.

Gwynne’s Grammar: an unbelievably positive review

I’ve seen a lot of people criticise ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ by NM Gwynne. According to Geoffrey Pullum, Gwynne is a “preposterous old fraud” whose “pontifications” show a “lack of any grasp of the subject”. Michael Rundell thinks the book promotes “snobbish prejudices and silly made-up rules”. Barrie England finds Gwynne “crazed” and “deaf to how the language is used and insensitive to the variations of which it is capable”. Oliver Kamm says that the book is a “dispiriting” work of “unremitting silliness”, full of “arbitrary rules that stultify prose and are a parody of learning” and driven by “not merely fanaticism but an ignorance of how language works”.

On the other hand, Prince Charles says the book is “outstandingly useful”.

I would tend to side with the critics  – especially given Gwynne’s ill-fated grammar test earlier this year – except that I have achieved an insight they lack.

The clue is in the name.

‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ is a deft piece of wordplay. It appears to announce that this is a book by Gwynne about grammar, but of course the author’s name appears on the cover too. A careless reader might therefore deem this redundancy or even vanity, but the truth is more subtle.

The title ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ conceals a deeper meaning: that the book is about the grammar of Gwynne’s own language, a distinctive idiolect of formal standard English known as Gwynglish. It follows many of the rules of English, but rejects some and adds others; the result is a grammar unique to Gwynne.

One endearing idiosyncrasy of Gywnglish is that the Gwynglish word for ‘Gwynglish’ is ‘English’. A lazy failure to appreciate this rather simple point led the other reviewers to mistakenly damn Gwynne for a bone-headed, evidence-free procrustean prescriptivism.

I haven’t actually read most of the book, as its first chapter is all I need to judge its extraordinary quality. So I’m only going to review that chapter. And, as it’s only seven sentences long and is available free in the Amazon preview, I don’t think I’m taking a liberty in reproducing it in full. It contains a wealth of information about Gwynglish, so let’s take it one sentence at a time: Continue reading