Category Archives: editing

Our changing language: When does wrong become right?

Iva Cheung has done up a nice, cogent, accurate summary of my presentation at the 2014 Editors’ Association of Canada conference. You can read it at

The PowerPoint I used for the presentation can be downloaded from

There’s no way to truly split an infinitive

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly

You can’t split an infinitive.

I don’t mean I don’t want you to. I don’t mean it’s not proper to. I mean it’s not possible to. This is for the same reason that I haven’t just broken one off three times, at the ends of the three preceding sentences.

The English infinitive is one word. Not two. The to is not part of it. It’s just the infinitive’s trusty butler, and sometimes the infinitive doesn’t need the butler. When it does need the butler, it doesn’t need it right next to it all the time. And sometimes the butler stands in its place.

It seems rather posh, doesn’t it, for an infinitive to even have a butler? It wasn’t always thus. In Old English — that Germanic language that was taking root as of the AD 600s, brought over by the Angles and Saxons — the standard infinitive was one word, for instance etan (eat).

But there were cases where the infinitive functioned more like a noun and would be inflected like a noun in the dative case, and it would have the appropriate preposition before it, to. Here’s a clip from the Bible:

Ða geseah ðæt wif ðæt ðæt treow wæs god to etenne

“Then the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.” That is, good for eating. Generally the inflected infinitive was used in places where a noun (e.g., gerund) construction was equally usable: begin to work could also be begin workingthe power to kill could also be the power of killingto speak is a sin could also be speaking is a sin.

Obviously those instances have persisted, since my examples are in modern English. Something happened in-between the Old English period and now, though: English lost almost all of its inflectional affixes. The spelling and pronunciation changed some, too. So instead of ic ete, þu etst, he eteð, we etað, ge etað, hie etað, infinitive etan, subjunctive ete and eten, imperative ete and inflected infinitive (to) etenne, we now have I eat, (thou eatest), he eats, we eat, you eat, they eat, infinitiveeat, subjunctive eat, imperative eat and (no longer inflected) to-infinitive (to) eat. All the affixes got eaten and just a little sis left.

One result is that the to-infinitive is now used a bit more widely than it was in Old English, since there are places where it wouldn’t be clear if it were just plain old eat. But the pattern is largely similar: we use to when the infinitive is the focus of purpose or necessity (want to eat, need to eat), completes the sense of a verb or noun (begin to eat, the power to eat), or is the subject or object of a sentence (to eat would be nice). We use the bare infinitive when it follows certain auxiliaries of mood and tense (you must eat), verbs of causing (I’ll make you eat), verbs of perception (I want to see you eat) and a few others in that general vein.

And we can snap off the infinitive and leave it implied; we don’t have to say it if we don’t want to. (Want to what? Say it, of course.) In fact, the to generally tends to stay more readily with what’s before it than with the infinitive it’s serving.

Well, that is how a butler treats guests. He has to watch them to make sure they don’t get lost or steal the silver.

Mind your idioms

Originally published in Active Voice, the national magazine of the Editors’ Association of Canada

English has many quaint and curious phrases, clichés, and idioms, and we quite often see them misconstrued. Ours can be a very unforgiving game. You don’t have free reign to pawn off whatever one-of usages will tie you over, or do just any linguistic slight of hand (or vocal chords). No, you have to tow the line and stick to the straight and narrow, or your straight-laced readers will develop a deep-seeded dislike for you and give you short shift – they will wait with baited breath to see you get your just desserts and be hoisted on your own petard without further adieu, and the value of what you have to say will be a mute point.

Heh heh. Let me put that right:

You don’t have free rein to palm off whatever one-off usages will tide you over, or do just any linguistic sleight of hand (or vocal cords). No, you have to toe the line and stick to the strait and narrow, or your strait-laced readers will develop a deep-seated dislike for you and give you short shrift – they will wait with bated breath to see you get your just deserts and be hoist with your own petard without further ado, and the value of what you have to say will be a moot point.

Of course, that’s all well and good as long as we’re all playing the same game. But when we’re dealing with international audiences, the phrasing we use in hopes of striking a home run with our readers (or even just stealing a base) may seem to them to be not just cricket, and you won’t strike out – you will be dismissed.

We Canadian editors may be a bit smug about our position seemingly straddling the British-American fence. After all, we all know about our/or and re/er and ise/ize, and we may feel that, having mastered aluminium with an i and orientate with the ate and perhaps revise for study, estate agent for real estate agent, and some food terms – rocket (arugula), courgette (zucchini), marrow (summer squash), swede (rutabaga) – we can count on our intuitions with British.

But we run the risk of taking something for an error or typo when it’s really the correct British form. A bit over a decade ago, Orrin Hargraves came out with an excellent guide to British-American differences, Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions; let me share with you some of the benefit of that smart volume: If you want to make a home from home in British English, and make a good job of it, don’t take the attitude of the know-all; know when to leave well alone if you want to cater for your readers and get on with them. Knowing your phrasal idioms can make the world of difference and give you a new lease of life – and if you don’t know them, you can rub your readers up the wrong way, and they might have a go at you and want to get shot of you. It will be more than a storm in a teacup; you will end up down at heel.

Which means, first of all, you will not render the above in a Canadian way: do not change it to home away from home, do a good job, know-it-all, leave well enough alone, cater to, get along with, make a world of difference, a new lease on life, rub your readers the wrong way, give you a tongue-lashing, get rid of you, tempest in a teacup, or down at the heels.

The best idea, of course, is to get a native British speaker – or, as occasion demands, an American speaker to add American idioms and weed out Canadianisms: don’t slip up and start talking about writing the odd test in pencil crayon, for instance (“Ohhhh, you mean taking the occasional test using a colored pencil! What was that other weird stuff you said?”). But at the very least, always look twice before crossing the idiom.

I only wanted to explain this

This week is a bit of a double header for me: two articles published in different places at the same time. Yesterday I posted a link to my latest article on; today I’m posting (in its entirely) my latest article on the Editors’ Association of Canada’s national blog, The Editors’ Weekly.

Adverbs are a problematic and much-maligned class of words. Linguists often have trouble explaining exactly why they go where they go. Some sorts of adverbs are baselessly despised (hopefully, people will eventually get over those hangups, but I’m not hopeful). Some people think adverbs should be excised from writing altogether.

I’d like to cover all the misconceptions relating to adverbs, but that would make for very long reading. So today, I’m only going to talk about the placement of one specific adverb.

Those of you who read that and thought, “That’s bad grammar — it should be ‘I’m going to talk only about’ or ‘I’m going to talk about only,’ ” raise your hands.

Hands raised? Keep them there. As long as they’re raised they won’t be causing any trouble.

Oh, there’s no mistake in thinking that careful placement of only has much to recommend it. The mistake is in thinking that putting it in the default position, right before the main verb, is an error unless it’s limiting the main verb specifically.

Let’s look at an example sentence:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

Without context, all you know is that baking three cakes is the full scope of what I wanted. You don’t know if the thrust of it is “I was not happy about baking the fourth one” or “I didn’t want to have to decorate them” or “I had no desire to bake three pies too.”

But do you know what the supposed only correct interpretation of that is? It’s that I only wanted to bake the cakes — I didn’t actually do it.

Does that seem odd? It should. It’s a made-up rule with no correspondence to reality. As Matt Gordon recently said on Twitter, quoting a student paper he was marking, “If ‘this grammatical distinction has confused writers for centuries,’ maybe it’s those trying to impose the distinction who are confused.”

In truth, the only way you can make that only about wanted is to emphasize wanted, or to phrase it differently. That position is the default position for only regardless of what aspect of the action it is limiting. But the rule-thumpers insist that you must move the only right next to what it limits:

I wanted only to bake three cakes.

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

I wanted to bake three only cakes.

Ah, wait, the last one isn’t even usable. You have to do this:

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

But that blows the “rule” right away. If you can do that, you can do this:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

You can do likewise for the other restrictions:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

The fact that we can — and do — shift the emphasis like that without moving the only is proof that this is a standard feature of English grammar, and that the word feels natural in the default position and can work there quite well. Anyone who tells you that “I only wanted to bake three cakes” is wrong and must be “I wanted only to bake three cakes” has not correctly analyzed the syntax of the sentence. He or she also has a tin ear, and yet thinks himself or herself a better writer than the many respected authors throughout the history of English who have used only in the “wrong” way.

This is not to say that you can only put only before the main verb — or, if you prefer, it’s not to say that you can put only only before the main verb. Its mobility gives you a very good tool for clarifying the meaning. But the availability of the default position gives you a tool for adjusting the rhythm and the naturalness of the sentence when the meaning is clear anyway. Why limit your toolkit unnecessarily?

Go, vocatives! Go invocations!

A reader of Sesquiotica emailed me to ask about which is correct if you’re cheering someone on: “Go, Veronica!” or “Go Veronica!” (If the person isn’t Veronica, substitute the correct name, obviously.)

My answer is that it depends somewhat on context. If I’m addressing Veronica directly, I’d include the comma, as “Go” is a complete imperative (command) by itself and the “Veronica” is a vocative – her name used just to indicate I’m addressing her. If I addressed her and then said “go” it would also have a comma: “Veronica, go!”

If, on the other hand, I’m cheering for her at some event where she can’t necessarily hear me and I’m really not addressing her directly, just invoking her, I might more likely use “Go Veronica!” because in that case “Go” is not really a direct imperative, it’s an expression of support like “Up with Veronica” or “Long live Veronica,” and the “Veronica” is part of the same expression to indicate who I’m cheering for.

A lot of people don’t put a comma in for the first case either, but if you want to be formally correct, add it in.

There are also cases where a comma will help even if it’s an invocation – for instance, if your team are called The Nuts, “Go Nuts!” can mean something different from “Go, Nuts!” And fans of Minnesota’s hockey team may or may not be sensitive to the difference between “Go, Wild!” and “Go Wild!” (I’m inclined to think in this case that the effect would be the same, however.)

Topics, we front them

Featured on The Editors’ Weekly, blog of the Editors’ Association of Canada

English is normally a subject-verb-object kind of language, but there are some interesting exceptions, especially in casual contexts. Consider examples such as the following:

Poodles, we walk them. Labradors, they walk us.

Chickens we have; roads, not so much.

Not one of the clauses above follows standard English sentence order, and yet we understand them. Of the four clauses, the first is object, subject-verb-object (pronoun); the second is subject, subject (pronoun)-verb-object; the third is object-subject-verb; and the fourth is object, adverb – no subject or verb overtly expressed at all. All four are examples of topic fronting, sometimes called left dislocation. (Note that we normally use a comma to set off the topic when it is followed by a complete clause or an elliptical statement, but not usually when the sentence is not syntactically complete without it.)

So why do we depart from our usual syntactic structure? We do it to maintain our preferred information structure. When we communicate information, we usually prefer to introduce a topic and then comment on it with new information. This can be especially useful when we are contrasting two topics. We don’t have to do it; we could rewrite the above sentences as follows:

We walk poodles. Labradors walk us.

We have chickens; we don’t have roads to nearly the same extent.

The first example works well as rewritten, though it loses its folksy feel; it also loses the parallelism of topics, but it highlights the inversion, which has its own effect. The second really, um, fails to cross the road. And even in a structure such as the first, you get poorer results if you can’t make a useful inversion:

Shirts, we mend them. Shorts, we toss them.

We mend shirts. We toss shorts.

You can see it loses some of the contrast effect. In speech you can emphasize the topic structure using intonation; in print that option is not as available.

Now look at the preceding sentence (“In speech…”): it contrasts the adverbial prepositional phrases thematically by moving them from the end to the beginning of their clauses – and no one would object to it. So why does it seem somehow incorrect to do it with nouns?

It’s not because it’s some new error, or a structure borrowed from another language (though some languages do normally introduce topics first, regardless of syntactic role). In fact, as Mark Liberman has discussed on Language Log, left dislocation has existed in English as long as there has been an English for it to exist in.

What has happened is that it has fallen out of use in recent centuries. Like some other formerly standard things, such as double negatives, double superlatives, use of ain’t, pronunciation of –ing as –in, and use of ’em in place of them, it has come to be seen as nonstandard, especially when there is also a pronoun filling the same role – we can sometimes get away with it as poetic when there is no pronoun:

Parsley we put on the plate, sage we leave on the plain, rosemary and thyme we drop in the pot.

The nonstandard air of left dislocation gives a useful means of making your text seem casual or colloquial – as well as keeping a nice clear parallelism. On the other hand, if you need to seem more formally correct, you still have a means of putting it in front acceptably: just turn the parallel nouns into parallel prepositional phrases.

With poodles, we walk them; with Labradors, they walk us.

A little Hellgoing sentence mechanical deconstruction

In Lynn Coady’s Giller-Prize-winning book Hellgoing, one of my editorial colleagues has spotted the following sentence:

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

Does that look quite right? Are you not quite sure? It’s the sort of sentence that you might not think much about unless you stop and look at it, but if you do stop and look at it it might start to drive you a little crazy.

So let’s go into this little Hell and take apart this sentence and see how it works.

Core subjects and verbs:

She tried . . . but she wasn’t succeeding.

Tried what?

…tried not to stare…

Not to stare at whom?

…not to stare at Marco…

I’ll abbreviate “She tried not to stare at Marco” as STNSM. It’s syntactically fine, I think we can agree.

Now: when?

STNSM while he spoke…

OK, spoke to whom?

…he spoke to X

where whoever X was, he was speaking to him.

So X was the person he was speaking to. Whoever that was.

Now here is how that plays out in that bit of the sentence. We need a relativizer:

…he spoke to {the person} {[relativizer] he was speaking to him}

What happens is that {the person} is replaced by the whole {[relativizer] he was speaking to him}.

The relativizer is “whoever” or, as the case may be, “whomever”:

…he spoke to {whoever {he was speaking to [him]}}

The “him” at the end moves up and merges with the relativizer, giving it accusative case (i.e., making it the object) (see the bottom of this post for more on this):

…he spoke to {whoever [+him] he was speaking to}

…he spoke to {whomever he was speaking to}

That’s where the confusion happens. The raising and merging into “whomever” is something that can confuse just about anyone until they learn about the underlying movements.

It could have been

…he spoke to the person to whom he was speaking

Then “the person” stays put and it happens this way:

…he spoke to {the person} [relativizer] he was speaking to {him}

The relativizer would become just “whom”, moved up from the end:

…he spoke to {the person} [whom] he was speaking to

But the “to” typically follows it up in this case:

…he spoke to {the person} [to whom] he was speaking

Notice there are two “to”s in both versions.

So let’s look at the whole sentence again and match the parts:

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

What are the verbs?

tried … (not) to stare … spoke (to) … was … speaking (to) … wasn’t … succeeding

The conjugated verbs have subjects:

She tried … he spoke … he was … she wasn’t

Let’s add the complements:

She tried not to stare

to stare at Marco

he spoke to whomever

whomever he was speaking to [him]

she wasn’t succeeding

There are also the conjunctions “while” and “but”, and that makes the whole thing.

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

So there are actually no surplus words. Each verb “speaking” requires a “to”: “spoke to” and “was speaking to”. Formal English often frowns on stranding the preposition at the end, but it’s always been an available feature of English; indeed, it requires less syntactic movement. Raising the preposition with its complement is a funny thing to do from a syntactic perspective, and linguists call it “pied piping” because it’s as though the object is a pied piper getting the preposition to come dancing along with it.

Most of that is of course rather complex and more than the average person is inclined to want to know. But editors aren’t average persons, so I have put it here for your enjoyment.

Now, here’s the bit more about the “whoever” becoming “whomever”: The reason “whoever” is “whomever” is because it’s merged with the “him”. The entire relative clause is the object, and the case doesn’t penetrate inside it. Here’s proof:

He looked at whoever was speaking to him.

It would not be correct to say “whomever was speaking to him” because the “was” requires a subject, and that is “whoever.”

As it happens, I talk about how case assignment doesn’t automatically percolate into phrases in my latest article on, “‘You and I’ vs. ‘You and me’.”