Reactions to Robert Lane Greene's post at Johnson on split infinitives got me to thinking about the One Way Only crowd.
Specifically, it was a comment by David M. Rowe:
Yes, avoiding split infinitives at all cost can be labored and pedantic. Making them the default usage, however, reduces an authors tone to the level of over-hyped consultants' jargon. ("Our model allows you to rapidly, effectively and inexpensively improve your forecasts." Ugh!)
The default usage? The default? Really? You point out that the split infinitive is not inherently objectionable, and the One Way Only crowd concludes that you are makiing it not permissible, but obligatory. No, it is an option. You don't like it, don't use it. But an accomplished writer or editor will be pleased to have options.*
The One Way Only crowd also includes those who think that a word must not stray from its etymological corral. It's still possible to encounter complaints that decimate must mean to reduce by a tenth. I respect etymology, and I'm fine with reducing by a tenth if we're clear in context, particularly about disciplinary measures in the Roman legions. I'm not fine with decimate for destroy, or use anywhere in the sports pages. But decimate for damage seriously or reduce substantially looks like a reasonable, commonplace, and established usage.
Copy editors, I regret to say, have an unfortunate tendency to gravitate toward the One Way Only crowd, particularly when they have an exaggerated sense of the importance of stylebooks. My worthy colleague Bill Walsh and I have a particular distaste for unwarranted extrapolation from stylebook entries.
An example that he and I have pointed out repeatedly: The Associated Press Stylebook used to say that you use a hyphen in a construction such as "a half-mile." Perfectly acceptable. But when I was first on the copy desk at The Sun, the rule being enforced was that only the hyphenated construction was legitimate. Any text including the phase "half a mile" was altered to "a half-mile." I fell into line. I was green, coming from a Gannett paper in Cincinnati to Big-Time Journalism, and it took me a while to recognize time-wasting silliness.
English has lots of choices, which afford writers and editors oppportunities to develop taste and judgment. English also has a great many guidelines about writing, some good, some bogus, some obsolete. Joining the One Way Only crowd inhibits the ability to make informed judgments.
*By the way, Mr. Rowe's example of the ugliness of the split infinitive shows his thumb on the scales. It's easy to concoct excessive examples. The Associated Press Stylebook, in its thick-skulled adherence to the "split verb" superstition, presents this example: "There stood the wagon that we had early last autumn left by the barn." You shouldn't need to consult a stylebook or a rule to identify that something is damnably awkward.
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