A simple crumb of advice can be profoundly deep. Two of the profoundest crumbs on writing I’ve ever received came from Cynthia Huntington, a magnificent poet who also happened to be a professor at my alma mater, Dartmouth College. Here’s what she says:
First of all, know the difference between “it’s” and “its”. This is confusing, because “its” is a possessive pronoun, and normally apostrophe-“s” at the end of a word means “possessive”. But not in this case – “it’s” is a contraction of “it is”. So while it’s (<--) tempting to write "the lion swished it's tail", no: "the lion swished its tail".
Once I grokked this, I noticed mix-ups everywhere. Drives me nuts! The larger point is that attention to detail matters. Mistaking “it’s” for “its”, describing something as “very unique”, or writing “a lot” as one word is just plain sloppy, it screams “I care less about words than you” to someone who knows better. And if you don’t care, why should they?
Second: When attributing dialog, always use “said”, or occasionally “ask” for questions. In other words, characters should never “murmur”, “speculate”, or – the absolute worst – “intone”. Using a verb other than “said” or “ask” is just distracting and annoying, calls attention to the writing in a bad way. Can this rule be broken? I’m not sure it even qualifies as a “rule”. But it’s like invading Afghanistan – good luck.
Using “said” for attribution is a perfect example of style over grammar. There’s nothing grammatically wrong with a character “intoning”, especially not a priest on Sunday. But stylistically it’s just awful, and style is so much more important than grammar, after all. A sentence can be grammatically miserable but somehow, through a trick of the writer’s brilliance, be transformed into a thing of beauty.
William Shatner fired off a broadside against the English language in 1966, proclaiming his quest “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, but no one really noticed. Star Trek was just a clunky TV show about phasers and warp drives, and the split infinitive – wedging “boldly” between “to” and “go” – was the least of its problems.
Only the clunky show went on to become a classic, and the proscription against split infinitives officially kicked the bucket when Star Trek: The Next Generation launched in 1987.
It’s Patrick Stewart who killed it, repeating Shatner’s words in that beautiful accent of his. His elegant, Shakespearean diction lent respectability to split infinitives, as if The Bard himself gave permission. The proscription became embarrassing reminder of our benighted past, when women couldn’t vote and gay people couldn’t marry. What’s the big deal, bro? It’s all good.
Only it’s not all good, and figuring out why gets the root of what makes the English language tick.
The official reason is pretty stupid, actually. Infinitives are two words in English – “to run”, “to hold”, but they’re a single word in Latin – “currere”, “tenere”. And so, the argument goes, infinitives are an indivisible unit of grammar. Jamming “boldly” between “to” and “go” is like cramming a nugget of raw chicken liver into a chocolate truffle.
That’s what I was told back in the eighth grade. And if I believed it, I’d be all too happy to split infinitives, but it’s not the right reason. Split infinitives aren’t bad because of Latin, they’re bad because they dilute the clarity and power of writing. “To be or not to be”, for instance, becomes “to be or to not be”. Hamlet becomes Spamlet. And the words inserted into an infinitive are almost always junk.
Take this odious sentence I came across earlier this morning, from Yahoo Finance: “Still, while falling below $30 would represent a big milestone, some investors say the stock would need to fall still further for the company to truly become a takeover target.”
Purging “truly” improves the quality of the sentence, but it’s just the beginning. “Still” is used twice when it shouldn’t be there at all, and “big” is redundant because any milestone, by definition, is “big”.
Every phrase of the article contains similar crimes, including the title. And that, to me, is what’s most offensive about split infinitives – it’s a sign of laziness, the author screaming out “I don’t care about writing”.
And yet, I can’t deny the power of “to boldly go where no one has gone before”. For some reason, this phrase – like the original Star Trek – works. Despite itself, it works. Remove or reposition “boldly” and the words lose their effectiveness. There’s no rule of grammar or style so severe that it shouldn’t be broken once and a while, and that’s what makes great writing so powerful and mysterious.