Chicago Style

August 3, 2009

Once a month I get a treat in my IN box: a link to the latest Q&A entries to The Chicago Manual of Style Online. You might not think answers to readers’ questions about grammar, syntax and formatting would be much fun.

But they are.

I spend $30 a year for my online subscription to CMOS, in part because I actually consult the thing when I am confused about some particular of grammar, syntax or formatting. But mostly I pony up the thirty bucks each year because I just love that monthly Q&A.

Two examples. Hope you enjoy ’em. (If you do, hey, consider subscribing.)

Q. I read a lot and have been working on a novel of my own for a while now. In most of the materials I read the authors use “had had” and “that that” quite often. For example: “He had had the dog for twelve years and everyone knew that that was the real reason he didn’t want Animal Control to take it.” I doubt there is any actual rule against this, but I find it to be unattractive on a purely aesthetic basis and try to avoid it like the plague when writing. Is there anything to this or am I just weird?

A. As you can see here, correct isn’t always pretty. So you aren’t weird; you’re a writer, and one of the things that makes you a writer is that you’re sensitive to ugliness. Once you’re sensitive to clichés, you’ll be all set.

Q. Hello Grammar Goddesses, After looking through all my style guides (including CMOS, of course), I now know not to split my infinitives but have yet to find some examples of such. Please offer a few juicy examples of correct and incorrect text. Thanks so much and keep up the good work! Grammar Geekess in Portland, OR

A. Dear Grammar Geekess, CMOS has not, since the thirteenth edition (1983), frowned on the split infinitive. The fifteenth edition now suggests, to take one example, allowing split infinitives when an intervening adverb is used for emphasis (see paragraphs 5.106 and 5.160). In this day and age, it seems, an injunction against splitting infinitives is one of those shibboleths whose only reason for survival is to give increased meaning to the lives of those who can both identify by name a discrete grammatical, syntactic, or orthographic entity and notice when that entity has been somehow besmirched. Many such shibboleths—the en dash, for example—are worthy of being held onto. But why tamper with such sentences as the following?

Its five-year mission is to explore new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

His first thought, when something went wrong, was to immediately hit the escape key—even when he was nowhere near a computer.

It seems to me that, at least given these two examples, euphony or emphasis or clarity or all three can be improved by splitting the infinitive in certain situations. It’s one of the advantages of a language with two-word infinitives. One might observe, for that matter, that English infinitives are always split—by a space. Sincerely, Editor (grammar god [or more probably warlock], filling in for the goddesses)


  1. Carol

    Good ones! (And actually, the Q&A is free–you don’t have to subscribe to see it.)

  2. jdmann

    Thanks, Carol — good point! (D’oh!)


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