It was Advent 4 this morning, but now it's Festivus. I have brought the Festivus pole up from the furnace room to the living room, and the Airing of Grievances can begin.*

In the post "Learning to speak Imaginary American" at Language Log, we find that one Tim Parks has received a manuscript back from a publisher full of odd edits intended to make the text genuinely American. Mr. Parks is genuinely puzzled: "Does the position of 'also' really need to be moved in front of the verb 'to be' in sentences like 'Trains also were useful during the 1908 earthquake in Catania,' when to me it looked much better after it?"

Mark Liberman explains that Mr. Parks has fallen into the hands of an incompetent copy editor, a believer in the "split verb" superstition.

The split verb superstition, an extension of the split infinitive superstition, holds that you may not, must not ever insert an adverb between the auxiliary and the main verb, even though, and Professor Liberman demonstrates this at some length, it is perfectly idiomatic to do so in both British and American English.We have always done it that way.

Language Log had previously theorized that this superstition was promulgated by the lawyers who wrote the Texas Manual of Style.**

While that may be, I know from personal experience over the past thirty years that the superstition is endemic among journalists, fostered in part by the mealy-mouthed, weaselly "verbs" entry in the Associated Press Stylebook, which implicitly endorses it. I don't know how this bogus rule is taught in journalism schools, having had the good fortune never to take a journalism class myself, but nearly every damn reporter adopts it. It is a badge of the profession, like madness among hatters or black lung among miners. It is one of the reasons, along with cop jargon and slang so old it wheezes, that so much journalism reads like non-native English. Hell, even Nigerian spammers know enough to allow an adverb between the auxiliary and main verb.

It appears, unfortunately, that once a writer or copy editor has been bitten by the zombie, there is no remedy.

Keep your distance.

 

*I forgo the Feats of Strength at Festivus because of the heroic restraint I must practice every day, by virtue of which multitudes of irritating people remain on this side of the ground.

**Lawyers and Texans, two elements that you want to have as little to do with as possible.