January 23, 2009

Distinguishing real mistakes from non-mistakes

Many of those who frequent the discussion boards of the American Copy Editors Society work hard to disabuse colleagues about journalistic shibboleths, such as the one Bill Walsh calls "the un-splitting fetish."

This is the wrongheaded belief that leads many--including, it seems to me, a disproportionate number of journalists--to write awkward constructions like "we already have been there," where any normal person would write "we have already been there."

This superstition about not allowing the adverb (e.g. "already") to come between the two parts of a compound verb (e.g. "have been") has been thouroughly debunked by the best minds in the field, some of which are cited in Garner's Modern American Usage. For example: "Not only is there no objection to thus splitting a compound verb...but any other position for the adverb requires special justification" (H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage).

Nevertheless, many people continue to un-split, which is why Chief Justice Roberts, attempting to copy edit on the fly, bungled the inaugural oath. Steven Pinker, chairman of the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, adds his voice to those of the aforementioned minds, giving an insightful examination of why unsplitting is pointless. In doing so, he also gives us a magnificent headline:

Oaf of Office

So let's review: split verb phrases or, dare we say it, split infinitives—not mistakes. Attempting an impromptu rewrite of the most solemn oath of office in the land—big mistake.

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