All Spock's children now

Diane Hofkins

Here are some of the headlines: "To boldly go where Jane Austen went is new advice on grammar"; "Publisher decides to boldly advocate the split infinitive" and "It's grammar, Jim, but not as we know it".

Yes, The Plain English Guide, soon to be published by Oxford University Press, has inspired journalists across the spectrum of newspapers to make the same old jokes. Only the staid Times has gone for the less evocative "Rules of grammar dismissed as schoolroom myths".

The guide also allows one-sentence paragraphs.

And writers may begin sentences with a conjunction, such as "and" or "but".

None of the newspapers, including The TES, could resist the above little writers' jokes. But The Times did it best. They spoke to Anne Shelley, chairman of the Queen's English Society.

"On single-sentence paragraphs, Mrs Shelley said: 'These things are put down as gospel. In the right context I don't think it would matter.' 'But' was undesirable, she said. 'But everybody's doing it.'" Jane Austen did it "on almost every page", as the guide's author, Martin Cutts, is quoted as saying in most of the reports.

The most famous split infinitive in the universe, Star Trek's evocative "to boldly go" is the most-quoted line in the papers. But the Telegraph's leader writers are not having Gene Roddenbury outshine Shakespeare.

Their editorial begins: "To be or to not be - as the Bard might have said, were he a student of the latest rule book that attempts to lay down the rules of good English". This clever defence against the "linguistic inverted snobs and egalitarians" who want to barbarically overrun the Queen's English with split infinitives is somewhat undermined later in the commentary.

Poetically, the Telegraph expands, "in general, the rule exists to protect the simplicity and elegance of the infinitive against corruption by intrusive adverbs. It reflects the fact that an infinitive is a single indivisible part of speech. In almost every other language, both Romance and Teutonic, the infinitive is a single word, and the rule against splitting it is a genuflection to the roots of English. For all these reasons, it remains more elegant and sweeter to the ear to keep it whole, even when the adverb shouts for juxtaposition with the verb."

Unfortunately, the Telegraph gives an example: "'Artificially to inseminate' may sound contrived. But it is always better than 'to artificially inseminate'".

It is?

A Berkshire reader took umbrage in the next day's edition, commenting: "For example, in 'it was decided artificially to inseminate the cow', does the 'artificially' refer to 'decided' or to 'inseminate'? Alternatively in 'it was decided to inseminate artificially the cow', the 'artificially' perhaps best describes the manner in which the sentence was written."

It is an issue which will continue to infinitely split the literate.

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