Arrant Pedantry

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Book Review: What the F

whatthef Disclosure: I received a free advance review copy of this book from the publisher, Basic Books.

I was a little nervous when I was asked to review Benjamin K. Bergen’s new book, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. Unlike many of my linguist and editor friends, I’m not much of a swearer. I was raised in a fairly conservative religious household, and I can count the number of times I swore as a child on one hand with some fingers left over. Even now I swear pretty rarely. When someone asked me if I’d like to contribute to the group blog Strong Language (tagline: a sweary blog about swearing), I politely declined simply because I wouldn’t have much to add.

But even for someone with as clean a mouth as me, What the F is a fascinating read. Bergen starts by looking at the different realms swear words come from, like religion, sex, bodily effluvia, and disparaged groups. Most swear words across cultures probably fall into one of these categories, but different categories are weighted differently across cultures. For example, in French-speaking Quebec, some of the most offensive words are religious terms, even though most Quebecois nowadays are not very religious. Japanese, on the other hand, is said to lack dedicated swear words, but it still has ways to express the same ideas.

Bergen then dives into what makes a swear word a swear word, exploring concepts like sound symbolism to see whether there’s something innately sweary about certain words. In English, at least, there are some strong tendencies—our swear words tend to be monosyllabic and end with a consonant, especially consonants lower on the sonority hierarchy, like stops, affricates, and fricatives. That is, a word ending in k sounds swearier than a word ending in m. But this doesn’t necessarily hold across other languages, and it doesn’t offer a complete explanation for why English swear words are what they are. There are certainly other words that fit the pattern but aren’t swears. To a large extent it’s simply arbitrary.

Similarly, gestures like flipping the bird are largely arbitrary too, despite what appears to be some striking iconicity. But rude gestures vary widely, so that a gesture that seems harmless to Americans, like a thumbs-up or an A-OK, can be just as offensive as the bird in other countries. Even swearing in sign language isn’t as symbolic or iconic as you might think; signs for the f-word are quite different in American and British Sign Language, though the connection between signifier and signified is perhaps a little less arbitrary than in spoken language. Swear words are swear words because convention says they are. If you hear people use a certain word a certain way, you figure out pretty quickly what it means.

Some of the most fascinating parts of the book, though, come from what swearing tells us about how the brain works. Most students of linguistics probably know that some stroke victims can still swear fluently even if their other language abilities are severely impaired, which tells us that swearing uses different mental circuitry from regular language—swearing taps into much more primal neural hardware in the basal ganglia. On the flip side, Tourette’s syndrome, which involves dysfunction of the basal ganglia, can cause an overwhelming urge to swear. Some deaf people with Tourette’s feel the same urge, but the swearing comes out via their hands rather than their mouths. And the fact that the brain reacts to prevent us from accidentally saying swear words shows that we have a built-in censor monitoring our speech as it’s produced.

In a later chapter, Bergen debunks a paper by a team from where else but the School of Family Life at my alma mater, Brigham Young University, that purported to show that exposure to swearing actually harms children. Although there’s evidence that slurs can harm children, and verbal abuse in general can be harmful, there’s actually no evidence that exposure to swearing causes children harm. And Bergen ends with a thoughtful chapter titled “The Paradox of Profanity”, which argues that profanity gets much of their power from our attempts to suppress it. The less frequently we hear a swear word, the more shocking it is when we do hear it.

Throughout the book, Bergen maintains a nice balance between academic and approachable. The book is backed up by copious notes, but the writing is engaging and often funny, as when a footnote on the “various other manifestations” of the chicken gesture (“bent elbows moving up and down to depict chicken wings”) led to this Arrested Development clip.

Come for the swears; stay for a fascinating exploration of language and humanity.

What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves is available now at Amazon and other booksellers.

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To Boldly Split Infinitives

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek, so I thought it was a good opportunity to talk about split infinitives. (So did Merriam-Webster, which beat me to the punch.) If you’re unfamiliar with split infinitives or have thankfully managed to forget what they are since your high school days, it’s when you put some sort of modifier between the to and the infinitive verb itself—that is, a verb that is not inflected for tense, like be or go—and for many years it was considered verboten.

Kirk’s opening monologue on the show famously featured the split infinitive “to boldly go”, and it’s hard to imagine the phrase working so well without it. “To go boldly” and “boldly to go” both sound terribly clunky, partly because they ruin the rhythm of the phrase. “To BOLDly GO” is a nice iambic bimeter, meaning that it has two metrical feet, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable—duh-DUN duh-DUN. “BOLDly to GO” is a trochee followed by an iamb, meaning that we have a stressed syllable, two unstressed syllables, and then another stressed syllable—DUN-duh duh-DUN. “To GO BOLDly” is the reverse, an iamb followed by a trochee, leading to a stress clash in the middle where the two stresses butt up against each other and then ending on a weaker unstressed syllable. Blech.

But the root of the alleged problem with split infinitives concerns not meter but syntax. The question is where it’s syntactically permissible to put a modifier in a to-infinitive phrase. Normally, an adverb would go just in front of the verb it modifies, as in She boldly goes or He will boldly go. Things were a little different when the verb was an infinitive form preceded by to. In this case the adverb often went in front of the to, not in front of the verb itself.

As Merriam-Webster’s post notes, split infinitives date back at least to the fourteenth century, though they were not as common back then and were often used in different ways than they are today. But they mostly fell out of use in the sixteenth century and then roared back to life in the eighteenth century, only to be condemned by usage commentators in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Incidentally, this illustrates a common pattern of prescriptivist complaints: a new usage arises, or perhaps it has existed for literally millennia, it goes unnoticed for decades or even centuries, someone finally notices it and decides they don’t like it (often because they don’t understand it), and suddenly everyone starts decrying this terrible new thing that’s ruining English.)

It’s not particularly clear, though, why people thought that this particular thing was ruining English. The older boldly to go was replaced by the resurgent to boldly go. It’s often claimed that people objected to split infinitives on the basis of analogy with Latin (Merriam-Webster’s post repeats this claim). In Latin, an infinitive is a single word, like ire, and it can’t be split. Ergo, since you can’t split infinitives in Latin, you shouldn’t be able to split them in English either. The problem with this theory is that there’s no evidence to support it. Here’s the earliest recorded criticism of the split infinitive, according to Wikipedia:

The practice of separating the prefix of the infinitive mode from the verb, by the intervention of an adverb, is not unfrequent among uneducated persons. . . . I am not conscious, that any rule has been heretofore given in relation to this point. . . . The practice, however, of not separating the particle from its verb, is so general and uniform among good authors, and the exceptions are so rare, that the rule which I am about to propose will, I believe, prove to be as accurate as most rules, and may be found beneficial to inexperienced writers. It is this :—The particle, TO, which comes before the verb in the infinitive mode, must not be separated from it by the intervention of an adverb or any other word or phrase; but the adverb should immediately precede the particle, or immediately follow the verb.

No mention of Latin or of the supposed unsplittability of infinitives. In fact, the only real argument is that uneducated people split infinitives, while good authors didn’t. Some modern usage commentators have used this purported Latin origin of the rule as the basis of a straw-man argument: Latin couldn’t split infinitives, but English isn’t Latin, so the rule isn’t valid. Unfortunately, Merriam-Webster’s post does the same thing:

The rule against splitting the infinitive comes, as do many of our more irrational rules, from a desire to more rigidly adhere (or, if you prefer, “to adhere more rigidly”) to the structure of Latin. As in Old English, Latin infinitives are written as single words: there are no split infinitives, because a single word is difficult to split. Some linguistic commenters have pointed out that English isn’t splitting its infinitives, since the word to is not actually a part of the infinitive, but merely an appurtenance of it.

The problem with this argument (aside from the fact that the rule wasn’t based on Latin) is that modern English infinitives—not just Old English infinitives—are only one word too and can’t be split either. The infinitive in to boldly go is just go, and go certainly can’t be split. So this line of argument misses the point: the question isn’t whether the infinitive verb, which is a single word, can be split in half, but whether an adverb can be placed between to and the verb. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, the term split infinitive is a misnomer, since it’s not really the infinitive but the construction containing an infinitive that’s being split.

But in recent years I’ve seen some people take this terminological argument even further, saying that split infinitives don’t even exist because English infinitives can’t be split. I think this is silly. Of course they exist. It used to be that people would say boldly to go; then they started saying to boldly go instead. It doesn’t matter what you call the phenomenon of moving the adverb so that it’s snug up against the verb—it’s still a phenomenon. As Arnold Zwicky likes to say, “Labels are not definitions.” Just because the name doesn’t accurately describe the phenomenon doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We could call this phenomenon Steve, and it wouldn’t change what it is.

At this point, the most noteworthy thing about the split infinitive is that there are still some people who think there’s something wrong with it. The original objection was that it was wrong because uneducated people used it and good writers didn’t, but that hasn’t been true in decades. Most usage commentators have long since given up their objections to it, and some even point out that avoiding a split infinitive can cause awkwardness or even ambiguity. In his book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker gives the example The board voted immediately to approve the casino. Which word does immediately modify—voted or approve?

But this hasn’t stopped The Economist from maintaining its opposition to split infinitives. Its style guide says, “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

I call BS on this. Most usage commentators have moved on, and I suspect that most laypeople either don’t know or don’t care what a split infinitive is. I don’t think I know a single copy editor who’s bothered by them. If you’ve been worrying about splitting infinitives since your high school English teacher beat the fear of them into you, it’s time to let it go. If they’re good enough for Star Trek, they’re good enough for you too.

But just for fun, let’s do a little poll:

Do you find split infinitives annoying?

View Results

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Book Review: The Subversive Copy Editor

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the University of Chicago Press.

subversiveI have a terrible editor confession:1You can choose to read that either as a terrible confession for an editor or as the confession of a terrible editor. until now, I had not read Carol Fisher Saller’s book The Subversive Copy Editor. I also have to take back what I said about But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?this is the best book on editing I’ve ever read.

The book, now in its second edition, has been revised and expanded with new chapters. In the introduction, Saller explains just what she means by “subversive”—rather than sneaking errors into print to sabotage the writer, she aims to subvert the stereotype of the editor locked in an eternal struggle with the writer or so bound by pointless rules that they can’t see the forest of the copy for the trees of supposed errors.

I find Saller’s views on editing absolutely refreshing. I’ve never been a fan of the idea that editors and authors are mortal enemies locked in an eternal struggle. Authors want to share their ideas, and readers, we hope, want to read them; editors help facilitate the exchange. Shouldn’t we all be on the same side?

Saller starts with a few important reminders—copy editors aren’t the boss, and the copy doesn’t belong to us—before diving into some practical advice on how to establish good author-editor relations. It all starts with an introductory phone call or email, which is the editor’s chance to establish their carefulness, transparency, and flexibility. If you show the author from the beginning that you’re on their side, the project should get off to a good start.

And to maintain good relations throughout a project, it’s important to keep showing that you’re careful, transparent, and flexible. Don’t bombard the author with too many queries about things that they don’t know or care about like arbitrary points of style. Just make a decision, explain it succinctly if you feel the need, and move on. And don’t lecture or condescend in your queries either. Saller recommends reading through all of your queries again once you get to the end of a project, because sometimes you read a query you wrote days ago and realize you unintentionally come across as a bit of a jerk.

Too many editors mechanically apply a style without stopping to ask themselves whether they’re making the manuscript better or merely making it different. Sometimes a manuscript won’t perfectly conform to Chicago or whatever style you may be using, but that can be okay as long as it’s consistent and not wrong. (If you’re editing for an academic journal or other publication with a rigid style, of course, that’s a different story.) But there’s no reason to spend hours and hours changing an entire book manuscript from one arbitrary but valid style to another equally arbitrary but valid style. Not only have you wasted time and probably irritated the author, but there’s a good chance that you’ve missed something, introduced errors, or both. Rather than “What’s the rule?” Saller suggests asking, “What is helpful?” or “What makes sense?”

And Saller doesn’t have much patience for editors who get “hung up on phantom issues and personal bugaboos,” who feel compelled to “ferret out every last which and change it to that2I saw this happen once on a proofread. Remarkably, I don’t think the author used a single relative that in the entire book. The proofreader hunted down every last restrictive which and changed it to that—and missed a lot of real errors in the process. And changing that many whiches to thats surely would have wreaked havoc with the copyfitting.—if you’re still relying on your high school English teacher’s lectures on grammar, you need to get with the times. Get some good (current!) reference books. Learn to look things up online.

I also appreciated the advice on how to manage difficult projects. When faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, Saller recommends a few simple steps: automate, delegate, reevaluate, and accept your fate. See if you can find a macro or other software tool to save you from having to grind through long, repetitive tasks. Delegate things to an intern if possible. (Sorry, interns!) Ask yourself whether you really need to do what you think needs to be done. And if all else fails, simply knuckle down and get through it.

There’s also a chapter to help writers navigate the copyediting process, along with chapters on learning to use your word processor better, managing deadlines, working as a freelancer, and more. And throughout it all Saller provides sensible, practical advice. Some of my favorite bits come from a chapter called “The Zen of Copyediting,” which aims to help editors let go of the things that don’t really matter. When faced with an apathetic author, one of Saller’s colleagues tells herself, “You can’t care about the book more than the author.” Saller herself dares to suggest that “some of our ‘standards’ are just time-consuming habits that don’t really make a difference to the reader.” And finally, one of Saller’s former mentors liked to say, “Remember—it’s only a book.”

Whether you’re a seasoned editor or a novice just breaking into the field, The Subversive Copy Editor provides sage advice on just about every aspect of the job. It should be a part of every editor’s library.

The Subversive Copy Editor is available now at Amazon and other booksellers.

Notes   [ + ]

1. You can choose to read that either as a terrible confession for an editor or as the confession of a terrible editor.
2. I saw this happen once on a proofread. Remarkably, I don’t think the author used a single relative that in the entire book. The proofreader hunted down every last restrictive which and changed it to that—and missed a lot of real errors in the process. And changing that many whiches to thats surely would have wreaked havoc with the copyfitting.
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