5. Mar, 2017

To boldy go .... or not!

I am generally a very tolerant person. Few things on a day to day basis arouse me to real anger. But the abuse of our lovely language is one of them.  I am not alone in this; curators at the august and wonderful organisation I used to work for took great pride in announcing how many copies of “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” they had been given as presents. I believe the record was three – but bear in mind that was over a single Christmas period.

So why do so few people seem to care what they say, and write? Of course, with the best will in the world, typos creep in. It is all too easy to read what you think you have written, rather than what is there. But I do try! And the reason for that is simple; wrong grammar can change what you are trying to say entirely.

Consider these examples (I know, now I’m sounding like a school mistress. Sorry!).

Take a look at the following sentence.

"Woman without her man is a wild animal."

If you are a man, you are no doubt thinking "Well?  What's wrong with that?  Nothing that I can see."  If you are a woman, you are no doubt longing to punctuate it.  Not change or add a single word, you understand, simply … punctuate.

Try this version, with punctuation added:

"Woman!  Without her, man is a wild animal."

The sense has changed completely.  In fact, it has been reversed.  Just by the addition of two punctuation marks!  Go on - now tell me grammar doesn´t matter!

Or take the example of split infinitives.  I sometimes think that I am the last, remaining human being on the planet who cares about split infinitives.  Not so?  You care also?  Welcome, friend!  For those who were not taught about split infinitives at school, or never became aware of them later, a split infinitive at its simplest is no more than the sloppy habit of putting your adverb in front of your verb, instead of following the verb.  Have I lost you?  OK.  The world's most famous (or rather, infamous!) example of a split infinitive is:

"To boldly go where no man has ever gone before."

It should say, "To go boldly where no man has ever gone before."  Fair enough, in this instance it doesn´t make any difference to the meaning of the sentence, and even if it did, I doubt I would have a great deal of chance of persuading a million or two Trekkies to move to the correct version.

But a split infinitive can often make a huge difference to what you are trying to say. Another clever aphorism as an example; Mark Twain said "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive."  A beautifully constructed sentence that says what it means.  If he had split his infinitive (it sounds rather like a nasty medical condition, doesn´t it?), it would read:

"It is better to hopefully travel than to arrive."  Not the same beast at all!  "Hopefully" often pops up in examples of misuse; in this version, Mr. Twain would have been saying that he hopes it is better to travel than to arrive.

See what I mean?

Enough! I, at least, enjoyed that. I hope that you did too. If not, just call me pedantic. I don’t mind at all. I’m in good company.