From the Editor

Drescher: I split an infinitive - and lived to tell about it

jdrescher@newsobserver.comMarch 21, 2014 

You’re a tough crowd. I wrote in January about some of your language pet peeves. I noted, “My New Year’s resolution is to not give you Word Police any evidence to charge me this year for a spelling, grammar, punctuation or word-choice violation in this periodic column.”

One reader said I broke my resolution before the bowl games were finished. “I assume your split infinitive was a joke, right?” he wrote. “Although modern usage dictionaries relax the total ban on split infinitives to avoid awkward constructions, this is not such a case. There is nothing awkward about using ‘resolution is not to give.’ The relaxation is not a blanket license.”

I did not jest. In his well-regarded book, “Words on Words,” John B. Bremner wrote: “Banning the split infinitive is ridiculous. The so-called rule has no foundation in grammar, logic, rhetoric or common sense. The ghost of the split infinitive should have been exorcised long ago. Go ahead and split if you want to. Let euphony be your guide.”

I love that: “Let euphony be your guide.” I’d never heard of “euphony” until I read Bremner’s sentence. What a great word: eu-pho-ny, n, the quality of having a pleasing sound.

Euphony is good. So is clarity. The placement suggested by the reader was ambiguous in that the sentence could be read as what my resolution is not rather than what it is.

Every time I write about word choice, you flood me with the words and expressions that drive you nuts. Here’s a sampling of what you sent in January:

• “The media have gone out of control with the word ‘iconic.’ The N&O is bad enough with it but Brian Williams cannot get through a single newscast without using it.”

•  “I noticed that you did not touch the ‘who/whom’ conundrum. Several of my friends apparently think that using ‘whom’ makes them seem more learned. One lady actually said last week, ‘Whom is going to the program with you?’ It absolutely makes my skin crawl.”

•  “The use of ‘horrific’ instead of ‘horrible’ to mean ‘extremely bad or unpleasant.’ They are synonyms only when the meaning is ‘causing horror or shock.’ Also, the use of ‘notorious’ (widely and unfavorably known) instead of ‘famous.’”

•  “I see ‘preventative’ in the N&O and other print media when the word ‘preventive’ is the origin and is listed in the dictionary as the meaning of ‘preventative.’ Not only is it longer and harder to pronounce, but it is UNNECESSARY when preventive is clear.”

•  “Here at UNC, we ‘revision’ our programs; revising them just does not do them justice!”

•  “I am tired of hearing every coach, athlete and politician (among others) comment that they are ‘humbled’ after winning a game, an award or an election. They use it as if it is another word for honored. They are not saying they will remain humbled despite the honor (something that would make sense); they are most often saying they are ‘humbled’ by the win or the award itself, which is completely nonsensical.”

•  “Hearing people say ‘vetrin’ instead of ‘veteran.’ Drives me nuts.”

•  “An N&O favorite clumsy phrase: ‘shot dead.’ What happened to using just the single word ‘killed’?”

•  “Lay and lie – I don’t believe the differences are taught any longer. Lie means to recline and lay means to place and also requires a direct object. What’s so hard about that?”

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or Twitter: @john_drescher

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