How careful can you be …

I’m going through the final chapter of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (2014) to find out how many old chestnuts he discusses in his overview of usage problems. I’m always hoping to find new chestnuts, so we’ll wait and see.

Of course he mentions the split infinitive, and lists several “major guides” that discuss the problem (pp. 119-200). Some of these major guides I would not classify as usage guides because they are dictionaries (a different genre altogether), but one of them seems to come into the category I’m interested in, Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer (1965).

(image source: Amazon)

(But how major is “major”? I’d never heard of it before.) What I like about the quotation from this book, because I’m also interested in myths about usage guides and usage problems, is that Bernstein is another example of an author who seems to have thought that Robert Lowth (1762) was the first grammarian to condemn the split infinitive. Admittedly, he doesn’t mention Lowth by name, but the reference can’t be missed:

There is nothing wrong [Bernstein is quoted by Pinker as saying] with splitting an infinitive … except that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century grammarians, for one reason or another, frowned on it.

Lowth did NOT frown upon the split infinitive: he didn’t discuss it in his grammar, didn’t use it himself, and may never have heard of it. Nor did any other eighteen-century grammarian, since the split infinitive according to Richard Bailey in Nineteenth-Century English (1996) was only first frowned upon in 1834, and not yet by a grammarian by the way. I’ve never studied the discussion of the split infinitve by nineteenth-century grammarians, but we are now all able to study this old chestnut as it is discussed in English usage guides, as the feature is included in our HUGE database.

Do let me have more examples like that of Bernstein attributing the split infinitive to the eighteenth-century grammarians: I have quite a collection already.

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2 Responses to How careful can you be …

  1. Terry Ezra says:

    I seem to remember that, while illustrating the damage that self-appointed experts have done to the English language, Prof. David Crystal wrote that the writer of one of the first style guides in the 16th century complained about the use of the split infinitive in English because it ‘wasn’t like Latin.’ “Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling” (it’s not mentioned in the index though, I’ll have to read the book again).

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