Advertisement

The dumbest rule in the AP Stylebook

Yesterday, in recommending some clutter that the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook might excise, I named "the split-verb superstition, a journalistic extension of the split-infinitive shibboleth." I have been inveighing against this nonsensical rule at this location for years, and have not yet abandoned hope of burying it at a crossroads with a stake through its heart.

Let's have a look at the stylebook entry in full:

Advertisement

Verbs The abbreviation v. is used in this book to identify the spelling of verb forms frequently misspelled.

SPLIT FORMS: In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb (to leave, to help, etc) or compound forms (had left, are found out, etc.) [Entry lacks a period after the closing parenthesis, but let's move on.]

Awkward: She was ordered to immediately leave on an assignment.

Preferred: She was ordered to leave immediately on an assignment.

Awkward: There stood the wagon that we had early last autumn left by the barn.

Preferred: There stood the wagon that we had left by the barn early last autumn.

Occasionally, however, a split is not awkward and is necessary to convey the meaning:

He wanted to really help his mother.

Those who lie are often found out.

How has your health been?

The budget was tentatively approved.

There you have it: sheer madness.

What the entry takes away initially it restores at the end, acknowledging that putting an adverb between the auxiliary and the main verb is not necessarily awkward and can be necessary to convey the meaning. Why immediately is an awkward insertion in the first example and tentatively is not in the last I leave it to the editors to explain, if they can.

And that left by the barn example? I have been dealing with journalists' syntactical monstrosities for more than thirty-six years, and I have never encountered a native speaker of English who would write anything resembling There stood the wagon that we had early last autumn left by the barn.

Advertisement

In short, the whole entry is contradictory and incoherent.

While both Garner's Modern English Usage and Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage treat the split infinitive bugaboo, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage has a succinct explanation of this folk belief, which reads, in part:

"The consensus in the twentieth century … seems to be that awkward avoidance of the split infinitive has produced more bad writing than use of it. … The commentators recognize that there is nothing grammatically wrong with the split infinitive, but they are loath to abandon a subject that is so dear to the public at large. Therefore, they tell us to avoid split infinitives except when splitting one improves clarity. Since improved clarity is very often the purpose and result of using a split infinitive, the advice does not amount to much" [emphasis added].

So the verbs entry comes down to this: Try not to write awkwardly. Thank you, AP.

Mind you, as you look through Garner, Fowler, MWDEU, and language authorities whom you reckon by the dozens on the subject of the split infinitive, you will not find them treating what the AP Stylebook imagines is a problem with splitting a compound verb. That is because placing an adverb between the auxiliary verb and main verb is perfectly idiomatic English, and has been so for half a dozen centuries and more. The authorities do not identify a problem there. If the split infinitive bugaboo is nonsense, then the split compound bugaboo is a fortiori nonsense. John Bremner dismisses it in Words on Words: "Those who would ban splitting a compound verb are even more antediluvian than antisplitinfinitive troglodytes."

Since many reporters habitually observe this imaginary rule, I have to conclude that it is a linguistic artifice perpetrated by journalism schools, with the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook supplying aid and comfort.

It is time, past time, for this stylebook entry to go to a crossroads and lie down.

Advertisement
Advertisement