Sunday, March 10, 2013

Another crises: The return of the split infinitive

When Smithsonian magazine ran a piece in its February issue by a couple of "language mavens" defending split infinitives and sentences that ended with prepositions, I'm sure the editors were well aware that there are some sacrosanct  matters in life that you shouldn't mess with.  (Whoops!  Sorry about that, Teach.)

Reporting in the March issue that the essay "sparked the most response''  from some cold-blooded grammarians,  the editors published a few pro-and-con letters and then went on to the workaday world of telling us about, oh... the lost tribes of the Amazon and expert observations of female elephants.

Re the split infinitive, I know the feeling. Both as a reporter and later an editor, seldom did another international crises pass without  one reader or another scolding me for an abused infinitive or stray comma in the paper.  Few complained about the mysterious who and whom, which,  as Mitt Romney once conceded of his own words, were "not elegantly stated."  I could only reply that having edited millions of words by reporters,"you should have seen the original". I suspect that there are fewer complaints about who and whom because most folks, including me, have been  baffled by their usage. There are some things mortals were never meant to understand.  I feel the same way about the Higgs Boson ( the so-called God Particle), semiconductors and Brunelleschi's dome.

The severe challenge of deadline journalism is that it has merciless demands that don't always work out to perfection.  On several occasions as a  theater critic, I was forced to dictate reviews from notes in a telephone booth with a swarm of people glaring at me. It wasn't until I read the paper the morning-after that I had a clue to what I had said.

Still deadlier to one's honor  is a rewrite person at the other end misunderstanding what you have just said. After a speech by Robert Kennedy in Columbus,  I dictated a story   to the Washington Post in which I quoted him as saying that nuclear weapons should be defused.   The Post reported it as diffused - which did make a difference, don't you think? In panic, I called when I learned of the snafu and mercifully got a correction.

Oh, we began with split infinitives, which are OK with me.  I swear that language evolves.  If it didn't  we would be be communicating like Spenser's "The Faerie Queen."  Want to start a hot argument, try spelling it that way today. I wouldn't dare want to. 


Sandy Theis said...

When I first got to the statehouse, I was working for a chain of medium-sized papers, including the one in Dover. Mrs. Donahey was state treasurer and was leaving. Since she was from Tuscarawas County the paper wanted a profile on her. Someone who was quoted called her "the great lady of Ohio politics." But in print, she became the "great lay'' of Ohio politics. The missing d made the first edition.

I was horrified and called her to grovel and beg for forgiveness. She laughed and said she had heard from people she had not heard from in years. Now that's a great lady.

Grumpy Abe said...

Years ago, while I was working for a small newspaper in Indiana ,there was a young lady in town whose last name was Screws. (Don't remember her firdst name, so I'll call her Missy. The headline in our paper for her wedding announcement was...or did you guess? - Missy Screws to wed. Nobody was happy about that.

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David Hess said...

I, too, admit to being baffled about who and whom. As for split infinitives, I don't mess around about them. While I'm at it, can you provide a synonym for the word 'existential'?

Grumpy Abe said...

Synonym, Dave? Thick volumes have been written to define existentialism. So stand in front of a mirror, ask yourself who you are, why you are, , what is the meaning of your existence, what is your moral imperative, etc. etc. etc. I once took a 24-lecture course on the subject, and this is the best I can do. And I'm not even sure I'm right.

Grumpy Abe said...
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