Sunday, July 11, 2010

Split personality

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has not had a good week. First, he got slammed when a list of schools that were to be saved from the axing of the rebuilding programme included 25 that were actually due to be scrapped, as if that were a) actually his fault rather than an incompetent quango or b) going to make any difference to the quality of children's education.

Then, he got called "a miserable pipqueak" by a red-faced Labour backbencher (although personally I'd take that as an immense badge of pride). And now, he has had his English "corrected" by Hansard.

According to Paul Waugh's Evening Standard blog, Gove in his apology to the Commons ended by saying that he would like "to unreservedly apologise". But Hansard, the official record of parliamentary debate, changed it to "to apologise unreservedly".

Frankly, the sort of people who get het up about split infinitives really need to get out more (or should that be to more get out?) And I'm speaking as someone who believes that good grammar really does matter and should always be corrected. Unlike most pedants, I do not shudder when Captain Kirk promises to boldly go where no man has gone before, nor do I view it as a way in which we English are intellectually superior. There are plenty more solecisms in American English that prove that (such as "winningest").

The argument that it is wrong to an infinitive split is just silly, one of those inventions of the Victorians that pays no attention to how language works. They claimed it was because you don't get a split infinitive in Latin, but Latin does not use a "to" particle as part of the infinitive as, say, German does with "zu".

A split infinitive is common in ancient Greek, old French and other languages and was used in Middle English but died out for a spell until the 18th century. Shakespeare only splits an infinitive once (but we should never use him for grammatical perfection). Wodehouse often splits them and that is good enough for me.

It became so popular in the 18th and 19th century that grammarians clamped down on it quite hard. Perhaps that is why there is such a strong anti-splitting camp, because generations of pupils had it whacked into them not to separate "to" from the rest of the verb.

Either way, I'm not sure that Gove should take any mocking from Paul Waugh, who in his piece uses the phrase "bat and eyelid".

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