Try and, only, split infinitives, dangling participles

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What do these features have in common? That is something Carmen Ebner and I are going to figure out in the article we are writing for the online Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. For this article, we decided to focus on these four usage problems (selected from among the 55 items in Mittins et al.’s Attitudes to English Usage, 1970). My reason for choosing try and may be found elsewhere in this blog, and the placement of only was part of a very early survey I did in the course of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project. Carmen has been interested in the split infinitive from the beginning of her research project (it is a really good example to show how prescriptivsm works or doesn’t work, and there are several posts in this blog that deal with split infinitives). Carmen’s interest in the dangling participle is particularly clear from the piece she wrote about it in English Today, inviting readers to participate in her survey on this item.

We are drawing for our article on the usage polls that we have been publishing on this blog almost since day 1 of the project, and about which I posted a reminder for your contributions yesterday. Today, for those who felt we were asking too much, we are invoking your opinions only for the four items we are now working on, so here are the individual sentences. If you haven’t done so earlier, please tell us what you think of them!

Gratefully yours:

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6 Responses to Try and, only, split infinitives, dangling participles

  1. Paul Nance says:

    I’ll be interested to hear your thinking on what these features have in common. None of them is strictly grammatical, so perhaps they are more a matter of style or register. In past surveys, I’ve responded as I thought I would to another person’s speaking or writing. For this survey, I responded as I would to my own speech or writing: if I found myself using these features, would I notice it? Would I correct myself? Coming at the question from this perspective, I’ve found that I’m rarely a prescriptivist about my own language. I may notice oddities or even outright ungrammatical usage, but I’m more likely to find them interesting than to correct them, and more likely to attribute them to difference in register than to criticize them.

    • This is very interesting, the idea to fill in surveys along such different lines. As for me (which is btw a usage problem according to some writers: it is incredible how self-conscious you get to be in this context!), I was told not by someone who refereed my work for publication to use try and, which went against being taught it as an English idiom when I was in school. At first, I corrected them all (after all, I wanted my manuscript to be excepted!), but later I decided (not in the same book) to use try and by way of defiance. The split infinitive I used to avoid, but catch myself using more and more. Only is probably no longer a usage problem (we will let you know!) and the dangling participle I teach my students to avoid as it can cause confusion. So what do they all have in common? I don’t know, but we will keep you informed about our progress with this question.

  2. Paul Nance says:

    I use all four of these regularly in unguarded speech and edit them out (to a greater or lesser degree) in careful speech and in writing. Thinking about my own practice (rather than that of a stranger) makes it easier to think about when and why I edit them.

  3. I’m really surprised by the number of people who apparently dislike split infinitives, even in casual speech. Who are these people?

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