A Word, Please
The split infinitive
“Where does June stand on the split infinitive?” a colleague of my sister asked after learning I write about grammar. It’s a bit like asking, “Where does June stand on the number of protons in an oxygen atom?” My opinion is irrelevant. I could yell till I’m blue in the face that oxygen atoms have 4,000 protons each and it would matter not at all. There would still just be eight.
There’s no rule against splitting an infinitive. There never has been. A word like “boldly” is perfectly acceptable parked between the infinitive particle “to” and the infinitive “go” in “to boldly go.” That’s true not because I like it but because every authority from Strunk and White to Merriam-Webster’s says so.
I try to avoid forming opinions on matters that aren’t subject to opinion. The key word is “try.” Just because I know a usage is acceptable doesn’t mean I like it. I have my own unfounded, not-backed-up-by-reality peeves and prejudices. I usually keep mum about them. No point raving about the wrongness of something that’s right. Still, these correct usages irk my inner pedant.
“An” before “historic.” The choice between “a” and “an” depends on the sound that immediately follows it. If it’s a vowel sound, as in “understudy,” you use “an.” If it’s a consonant sound, as in “university,” you use “a.” Yes, both these words start with a vowel. But the sound that begins “university” is a consonant Y. “Historic” and “historical” are, in theory at least, pronounced with a consonant H. So in theory, they should be preceded by “a” and not “an.” But the words are sometimes pronounced with a silent or near-silent H. Plus, some experts say that, because the accent is on the second syllable, the obscured first syllable benefits from “an.” That is, an “n” before “historic” helps the listener hear the first syllable.
“Here’s” or “there’s” before a plural. Both these terms use a singular verb, “is,” in its contracted form: “Here is my friend.” “There is cake.” So, according to the rules of syntax, you can’t use them before a plural. You need the plural verb “are” instead: “Here are my friends.” “There are cakes.” Yet experts defend the contracted forms “here’s” and “there’s” before a plural as idiomatic. “Here’s my friends.” “There’s a lot of cakes.” But that will never sound good to me.
An enunciated T in “often. “As a kid, I was taught that the T in “often” is silent. I should have been taught that the T can be silent. A pronounced T is acceptable, too. But the lesson got under my skin and I still flinch when I hear “off-ten.”
“Acronym” for “initialism.” Associated Press style, the first editing style I learned, emphasizes that FBI, CIA and TGIF are not acronyms. Instead, an acronym is a word made from the initial letters or parts of other words, such as “sonar” from “so(und) na(vigation and) r(anging).” American Heritage Dictionary and Webster’s New World agree. “The distinguishing feature of an acronym is that it is pronounced as if it were a single word, in the manner of NATO and NASA,” the editors of American Heritage write. “Acronyms are often distinguished from initialisms like FBI and NIH, whose individual letters are pronounced as separate syllables.”
But there are two reasons why you can call FBI and acronym. 1. It’s become standard. 2. Merriam-Webster’s says you can. Remember: No dictionary can overrule another. That means you’re welcome to follow whichever you prefer.
“Peruse” for “skim.” In its traditional role, “peruse” doesn’t mean to skim casually. It means the opposite: to read closely or study carefully. Today, both meanings are acceptable. Miraculously, these opposite meanings don’t seem to cause much confusion. Still, my secret inner stickler isn’t happy when a word’s definitions directly contradict each other. That’s why I use “peruse” only to talk about a careful, attentive reading.
June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@ aol.com.