Thursday, April 30, 2009

Splitter's Dilemma - From my Scrapbook

This is something that I copied (I think, from the Times of India) down in my scrapbook more than two decades back but I enjoy reading it even today.

Nothing angers writers more than nit-picking copyreaders and publishers who attempt to improve their grammar. No wonder the French essayist, Montaigne, commented that “the greater part of world’s troubles arise because of questions of grammar.” American novelist Raymond Chandler was incensed when his English publisher ‘corrected’ some split infinitives. “When I split an infinitive, God damn it”, he said in an angry letter, “I split, so that it stays split!”

Winston Churchill as a cabinet minister also discovered that his bureaucrat secretaries were forever “improving his English” and correcting his odd penchant for splitting infinitives. On one such Whitehall file, he noted: “This is the kind of impertinence up with which I shall not put.”

Even the mighty Fowler in his Modern English Usage concedes that the English-speaking world may be safely divided into five categories: those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; those who do not know, but care very much; those who know and condemn; those who know and approve; those who know and distinguish.

The authority concedes that those who neither know nor care are the vast majority and are a happy folk to be envied by most of the minority classes. ‘To really understand’ comes readier to their lips than ‘really to understand’, lamented Fowler, who felt that category three should be bogey-haunted authors. He says that in their phobia of avoiding split infinitives, they make their normal writing style awkward and humpy.

Fowler is full of praise for category four who boldly go forth and break rules where necessary and reject the trammels of convention. Fowler says, “We maintain that a real split infinitive, though not desirable in itself is preferable to either of two things – real ambiguity or patent artificiality. We will thus split infinitives rather than be accused of ambiguity or artificiality; we will admit to sufficient recasting to avoid them altogether.”

George Bernard Shaw had a very low tolerance threshold for newspaper sub-editors correcting his copy. He once complained to the editor of The Times, London, “There is a busybody in your staff who devotes a lot of his time to chasing split infinitives.” Asserting that every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it, he urged the editor to dismiss “this pedant”. It is of no consequence whether he “decides to go quickly; quickly go; or quickly to go. The important thing is that he should go at once.”

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