Sunday, May 22, 2011

Maligning Lowth, Or Bob...I'm sorry

In rtfm* I had, in the grammar chapter, some harsh words for Bishop Robert Lowth. I accused him of applying the rules of Latin grammar to English and creating the rule that it's wrong to split an infinitive (i.e. "to boldly go").

However, I recently read “The Lexicographer’s Dilemma” by Jack Lynch (a great book, by the way). Mr. Lynch made a case for Bishop Lowth as a more reasonable man than I painted him. So I did what I should have done in the first place and did some research instead of counting on hearsay. In fact, Lowth didn't even discuss infinitives. He also said that it was wrong to apply the rules of another language to English (though, apparently, he wasn't good about following that rule).

In my defense (always a bad sign when you hear someone say that), I had my original information from a couple of good authorities: The Oxford Guide to English and Stephen Pinker’s “The Language Instinct” (both good books, though my favourite Pinker is his “Words and Rules” despite its unprepossessing topic). But, on this topic, they were...misleading.

Had I picked, as my example of Lowth inventing grammar rules, I should have used the ‘dangling participle’ rule (as in, “That’s where I’m going to.”). Then I would have been on firmer ground. However, seduced by the chance to make a Star Trek reference, I used the ‘split infinitive’ as my example. And I was wrong.

Fortunately, I'm planning a rewrite, anyway.

Reading or read

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