How to split an infinitive and live happily ever after

An anecdote in Sir Ernest Gowers’ Plain Words (1948) under “Troubles with Prepositions” recounts how an editor had clumsily rearranged one of Winston Churchill’s sentences to avoid it ending in a preposition. The then British Prime Minister, proud of his style, scribbled in reply: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

A more Churchillian version believes the original to have been: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put”, prissily edited by some Whitehall bureaucrat. Gowers also noted that the championship of the sport of piling up prepositions had been wrested from the English by the American humorist Morris Bishop in The New Yorker (27 September 1947):

“I lately lost a preposition
It hid, I thought, beneath my chair
And angrily I cried, ‘Perdition!
Up from out of in under there.’
Correctness is my vade mecum,
And straggling phrases I abhor,
And yet I wondered, ‘What should he come
Up from out of in under for?’”

The great authority for English usage is Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933), remembered both for A Dictionary of Modern English Usage and his work on the Concise Oxford Dictionary. English schoolmaster and lexicographer he also worked as a freelance writer and journalist. Before A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Henry and his younger brother, Francis George Fowler (1871-1918), wrote The King’s English (1906) on grammar and usage. The approach they took can be inferred from its Preface:

“It is notorious that English writers seldom look into a grammar or composition book; the reading of grammars is repellent because, being bound to be exhaustive on a greater or less scale, they must give much space to the obvious or the unnecessary; and composition books are often useless because they enforce their warnings only by fabricated blunders against which every tiro feels himself quite safe. The principle adopted here has therefore been (1) to pass by all rules, of whatever absolute importance, that are shown by observation to be seldom or never broken; and (2) to illustrate by living examples, with the name of a reputable authority attached to each, all blunders that observation shows to be common.”

Francis Fowler died in 1918 of tuberculosis contracted in the service of the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War and Henry dedicated A Dictionary of Modern English Usage to his memory. It is a bedside-table book, the kind you can dip into and always find a fascinating titbit before nodding off. Many entries are whimsical. For example:

“The writer who produces an ungrammatical, an ugly, or even a noticeably awkward phrase, & lets us see that he has done it in trying to get rid of something else that he was afraid of, gives a worse impression of himself than if he had risked our catching him in his original misdemeanour; he is out of the frying-pan into the fire.”

Fowler was concerned with more than just correct usage, dismissing “parlous” as “a word that wise men leave alone,” but recognizing that his verdict on the word “hotel” (which he believed should be pronounced “otel” like its French parent) “is certainly doomed & is not worth fighting for.” He was content to allow sentences ending in a preposition, but on the vexed subject of whether it is ever excusable to split an infinitive, he was ambivalent: “The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know & condemn; (4) those who know & approve; & (5) those who know & distinguish.”


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