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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Behold My Split Infinitives, My Dangling Prepositions, and My Singular “They”

When I am writing, I want to use split infinitives, dangling prepositions, and “they” to mean just one person, but there's a problem. I’m afraid people will think I’m an ignoramus. Or, at a minimum, not as educated and cultivated as they are.

But there are compelling reasons for using these maligned grammatical constructions. Sentences are simpler when prepositions dangle. Splitting infinitives often conveys more precise meaning. And using singular “they” is frequently the only expedient means of avoiding pronoun sexism.

So, you are my witness: I am liberating myself from bowing to composition norms I don’t believe in. I am hereby making a deliberate and public decision to not obey these grammatical peccadilloes. And if some reader somewhere thinks I’m a simpleton, well, I’m sorry they feel that way.

No fear!

And, besides, by putting this in writing on PrawfsBlawg, now I'll have something I can cite to as authority in my law review articles.

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on March 29, 2008 at 06:58 PM | Permalink


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Thatis something up with which I will not put.

Posted by: hoity | Mar 29, 2008 9:18:19 PM

It can be good to use split infinitives and dangling prepositions. "They" as a singular pronoun just looks dumb, though. Use "she" if you want to look progressive, "he or she" if you don't. The difference here is that only one of those options is actually incorrect -- the others are merely frowned on by some people who mistakenly think that they're incorrect.

Posted by: articles editor | Mar 29, 2008 10:43:04 PM

I agree with articles editor -- split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions are not actually incorrect (see about a gazillion posts over on Volokh Conspiracy about this), and thus you can play a game of double-gotcha with anyone who says otherwise.

And, it's perfectly OK to start a sentence with a conjunction. Like most of these, that's a third-grade rule made up to prevent third-graders from starting *every* sentence with a conjunction.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Mar 29, 2008 11:09:31 PM

""They" as a singular pronoun just looks dumb, though. Use "she" if you want to look progressive, "he or she" if you don't."

Agreed. I just mix between he and she.

"They" looks horrendous, and, seeing that the point of writing is to communicate an idea (rather than make one feel like he's taking a bold stand against societal conventions), the concerns of the reader should control.

Posted by: andy | Mar 30, 2008 1:16:14 AM

I'm with Articles Editor and Andy on "they."

Posted by: Chris | Mar 30, 2008 9:00:59 AM

Re your resolution "to not obey these grammatical peccadilloes." A peccadillo is a minor offense or a slight instance of misbehavior. One doesn't "obey" a peccadillo, but rather engages (or even revels) in one. Which, of course, appears to be your point. Sentence fragments are okay. Too.

Posted by: Steve Lubet | Mar 30, 2008 10:07:49 AM

Articles Editor, Andy, and Chris - "they" isn't incorrect as a singular pronoun, either, except in the most narrow sense of how language should be used. Language Log has some nice posts on the subject (e.g., it's even used in the King James Bible.

Besides, "he or she" sounds awkward, and just using "she" leaves as much to be desired as just using "he".

Posted by: Katie | Mar 30, 2008 10:13:28 AM

"and just using "she" leaves as much to be desired as just using "he"."

I.e., nothing much, I think.

Posted by: Jay | Mar 31, 2008 2:22:53 PM

I say go ahead and use that "they"! I do.

This use of "they" as an "indeterminate" third person pronoun has been in English for a few centuries. Use it and let the pedants be damned.

You'll note the same people who get cranky about "singular they" cheerfully use "singular you" (formerly only a plural second person pronoun - the singular form was "thou" - so why aren't they demanding its reinstatement forthwith?).

As for split infinitives, it is quite impossible to split an infinitive in English; strictly speaking, the prepositional marker "to" isn't the infinitive, the verb that follows it is.

So to truly split (ha ha!) an English infinitive, Captain Kirk would have to say: "to g-boldly-o."

Posted by: JJM | Apr 5, 2008 5:35:26 PM

1. Ah, yes, and simpler is always better, right? That's an ironclad rule, isn't it?

2. You can just as easily stress the adverb without splitting the infinitive, e.g., "in order fully to understand".

3. The "arguments" in favor of the "singular they" are idiotic--Blake spelled the word "cloak" as "cloke", so, by Jove, let's make that OK, too, because a major English poet spelled it that way!" Go ahead an use the "singular they", though. I don't get cranky about it when I hear it. I just think that people who use it are ignoramuses, and laugh at them. ;-)

Posted by: Rob T. | Sep 26, 2008 11:01:10 PM

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