Split infinitives aren’t particularly bad, and there is a difference between “to boldly go” and “to go boldly”: in the first, the boldness reigns. The heart of the enterprise (ker-CHING!) is its boldness. In the second, going is the point and boldness is a quality of the action. If you take it to the third person it’s obvious: “he wisely chose not to eat the scorpion” vs “he chose wisely not to eat the scorpion.”
That said, so much opprobrium has been heaped on the split infinitive that while I’ll use it in speech my own and the speech of characters) I don’t generally try to gun it through in descriptive text because it stops the eye.
Here’s another one: which vs that in restrictive clauses. That’s to say the contention that:
the dog which wins the race will get steak
should actually always be
the dog that wins the race will get steak
with which reserved for
the dog, which won the race we were just talking about, was awarded a medal in 2019 for saving a cow from drunkards
If you think this is a solid rule, please locate copies of the absolute best, most elegant English language novel you can think of in digital form and search the two terms. People like Dickens (I’m not claiming he’s the best, but dropping his name does tend to focus people’s minds in this discussion) absolutely did not give a rat’s ass.
Wikipedia, incidentally, has my favourite quote on this, from Earnest Gowers in 1926:
If writers would agree to regard that as the defining [restrictive] relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. There are some who follow this principle now, but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.
The Wikipedia entry describes Gowers as “championing” the rule. I’ve never seen it that way - it’s hardly a rousing call to stylistic arms - but the key point is that he acknowledges it just isn’t what people do. After you’ve said the majority and the best ignore it, you’re done.
Incidentally, being able to use the two words interchangeably allows you to avoid repetitions of “that” that are otherwise cumbersome…
…which are otherwise cumbersome.
I was taught at school in the 1980’s to use an apostrophe for dates. I think it looks horrible now, so I do this: 1980s. That said, there’s been a strange revisionism about this in the UK recently, with that particular Gen X experience being denied, so if you’ve been made to feel like you imagined it and you’ve just been doing it wrong: I was there and it happened.
I also firmly believe that 1980s is different from nineteen eighties or 80s or eighties and I use them deliberately and specifically, often on the same page, which occasionally results in squabbles with editors.
I’m sort of depressed that we don’t really capitalise Sun, Earth and Moon anymore but I grant you it does look weird on the page.
Ohhhh, and the Oxford comma. Sometimes you need it, sometimes you don’t. You’ll know when you do, because your list will suddenly look weird.
Dinner guests at his rock n roll mansion that night included two ex-Presidents, Miley Cyrus and a horse named Vladimir.
Is it really such a big ask to put a comma after Miley Cyrus? Grammar is the deployment of signs in aid of communication, not a sacred tablet.
People get amazingly heated about this stuff. One writer apparently fought a duel over grammar (was it Dumas? He definitely would have) but I can’t find the reference. The only thing I do occasionally get honked off about is the national curriculum and the attitude to writing and grammar it tries to impart. I know more about fronted adverbials than I ever wanted to after walking my kids through some really useless exercises in “creative” writing during the pandemic. The cognitive dissonance was really strong - almost everything they were being made to practice was stuff any professional editor would strike from a text - endless adverbs, crowded triple adjective descriptions and tortuous sentences whose only purpose was to demonstrate a particular construction you’d almost never use because, well, tortuous. And almost nothing on ideation. In the end I did a whiteboard animation for World Book Day for my son’s school, and a sweet, shy kid I’d never met before came and found me at the gate to say it had changed how he thought about his English lessons. (He didn’t specify whether he now loved or hated them; I’m calling it a win.)
Although I’ll be honest and say that I am a sucker for two particular rhythms I know only because they were pointed out to me. The first is Milton’s Greek triplet:
“the dismal situation, waste and wild”.
I just really like that combination of a powerful first description and two further adjectives which come after the noun. Look, you can use it to describe Darth Vader:
“that masked enemy, malign and rasping.”
Right? Or my favourite mountain:
“the lethal north face, overhanging and forever shadowed.”
And then there’s the Eddie Coyle opener:
“Jackie Brown at twenty six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.”
I don’t think there’s a more propulsive first line for a thriller. Fight me! (Only: don’t, because it’s just what works.)
A creative mind, orthogonal and bewildered.
Maybe i have missed something but you’ve got me wondering about the other rhythm.
I’m unabashedly confused, puzzled and confounded!
Thanks. I love this article, especially as a French native speaker trying to write fiction in English (I've written tons of things in English, from graduate school papers to countless blogs, but I'm a "beginner" with fiction).
Knowing grammar rules and knowing when to break them is something I've always loved.
Concerning Dumas, while he has fought in several duels, I couldn't find anything about fighting a duel for a grammar point either (neither in French nor in English).