Paul Johnson

When copulating, beware falling into Deep Structures

When copulating, beware falling into Deep Structures

I don’t give a damn for grammar, or syntax either. Having learned to ‘parse’ as a small boy, and done ten years of Latin and eight of Greek, I take it all for granted. But I love semantic and grammatical niggles and rejoice in the way some people get red in the face with rage at the lapses of others. Thus Earl Granville, when foreign secretary, telegraphed to Sir Stafford Northcote in Washington that the substance of the treaty between Britain and America (eventually signed 8 May 1871) was all right but that ‘in the wording of the Treaty Her Majesty’s Government would under no circumstances endure the insertion of an adverb between the preposition “to” and the verb’. The Earl was something of a stylist. Two years later he was out riding with Bishop Wilberforce, the famous ‘Soapy Sam’, when the bishop was flung from his horse on to his head and died instantly. The Earl recorded that his death was ‘essentially prelatical’. ‘He must have turned a complete somersault. His feet were in the direction in which we were going, his arms straight by his side — the position was absolutely monumental.’ Imagine Jack Straw writing like that!

But some highly placed people are as violently in favour of splitting infinitives as Granville was against. George Bernard Shaw threatened to cancel his subscription to the Daily Chronicle because its style editor had attacked ‘second-rate newspapers’ for permitting such ‘abominations’ as ‘to boldly say’ and ‘to suddenly go’. Denouncing the man as a pedant, an ignoramus, an idiot, a self-advertising duffer, Shaw urged the paper to ‘put this fatuous man out’ and ‘replace him with an intelligent Newfoundland dog’. Experts like Lounsbury, Fowler and Grove supported Shaw and pointed out that Donne, for instance, went in for split infinitives on a large scale and that Macaulay deliberately, in revising an article, put one in.

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