If there’s one thing everyone “knows” about English grammar it’s that a split infinitive is an illiterate error. For many years I’ve argued in The Pedant column of this newspaper that this widespread belief is a misconception. The split infinitive not only accords with the grammar of standard English but is essential to good style. Now I feel like Diogenes at the end of a long quest. Researchers at the University of Lancaster have found a big advance in the use of the split infinitive: a fourfold increase since the 1990s. It’s not before time.
The rule forbidding split infinitives is baloney from the outset. Technically, English doesn’t even have an infinitive form. What pedantic pundits refer to as the split infinitive is where an adjunct is inserted between infinitival to and its following plain-form verb, as in to boldly go, to wearily lament, or — as I’ve done often on this subject — to frenziedly ululate. Take this sentence, which appeared a few months ago in a Timesleader: “Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.” It’s terrible syntax and I feel the pain keenly, for those words were written by me — with one exception. The version I filed read not legally to minimise but to legally minimise. In the interval before publication, a sub-editor shifted the adverb one space to the left.
Such is the baneful effect of linguistic superstition. In my wording, the adverb legally precedes what it’s supposed to modify. That’s where it ought to go. No one with a feel for the natural word order of English would write legally to minimise unless they were apprehensive that a split infinitive might get them barred from polite society. Well, I’ve had enough of this and I’m thrilled that, judging by the evidence amassed by the Lancaster researchers, so has the smartphone generation.
The prohibition on split infinitives is just a stylistic whim dreamt up by a pundit in the 1830s. Abandoning it will have no effect on standards of English except to improve them. It’s not just that this rule has been superseded by current practice: it’s never been a rule of English grammar at all. Real rules are observed regularities of usage like inflection for tense or number (singular or plural). The notion that you need wrench your prose to make it fit a fantastical, preposterous prejudice that was beaten (often literally) into generations of schoolchildren is at an end. Scholarship has killed it and I gratefully kick the corpse.
A very special article about ‘very’ (& ‘actually’, ‘really’, ‘ultimately’…)
Many people complain about the use of literally in a way that seems, well, non-literal. This is because figurative use of the word (“I literally died laughing”) seems to contradict the meaning of the Latin root of literally, littera, which means “letter.”
The problem some people have with literally is that it’s a mushy adverb: if we removed it from our example and said “I died laughing,” the sentence is understood in precisely the same (non-literal) way—as hyperbole. Adding “literally” just adds emphasis; it’s the salt in the stew because the burden of meaning is on the other words (“died laughing”). Therefore, if “literally” is added and no change in meaning is the result, then ipso facto “literally” literally carries little meaning in this particular sentence.
This reduction of a word’s intensity is called “semantic bleaching,” and it’s a linguistic phenomenon that is more common than you may realize: when you say “Have a great day!” you don’t mean “Have a day that is large in spatial dimension,” and when you say “That movie was awesome” you don’t necessarily mean “That movie was expressive of awe or terror.” Both great and awesome (and fantastic, amazing, awful, and many others) have meanings that have become less literal over time. We could say that the problem with some uses of literally isn’t that it has lost some of its meaning, it’s that other uses haven’t lost the original meaning “by the letter” or “actually.” Both exist in frequent usage today.
Like literally, very and really retain their original meanings but have added another. Very came to English from the French spoken by the Norman invaders, and the 13th-century word for “true” was verai, which compressed to vrai in modern French. The ultimate Latin root is verus, meaning “true.” We still use very to mean “truly” or “truthfully” (“that was a very brave act,” “I’m very sorry”), but it frequently conveys emphasis for which truth is neither particularly important nor in doubt (“the very last thing I packed,” “you’re very welcome,” “the food isn’t very good”). It’s an intensifier—a word that colors another but that, in this case, has little color itself.
The same is true of really: sometimes it means “in reality” (“they really are twins”) but it often confers simple emphasis (“I had a really great time”) or subjective judgment (“that’s a really good play”) that doesn’t depend on objective realness or reality. Ultimately originally meant “finally” or “at the end” (“they ultimately succeeded”) reflecting its Latin root ultimatus meaning “last” or “final,” but is now also often used to mean “eventually” (“we ultimately agreed to the deal”). Actually originally meant “in act or in fact” (“I don’t know what actually happened”) but is much weaker in meaning when it is used to emphasize that a statement is true or surprising (“we actually planned to leave early,” “the movie was actually pretty good”).
Sometimes it seems as though literally is held to an adverbial double standard that makes many people question the validity of its use as an intensifier, whereas other words with similar patterns of usage seem to pass without criticism. While it’s important to be careful about language use, it’s also important to acknowledge that language is flexible and words can have several different meanings.
Effective use of intensifiers means using them sparingly. Ultimately, it’s up to you.
Is your vocabulary making you sound COMMON? Etiquette expert William Hanson reveals the lingo that gives away your social class (and the ‘T word’ is still banned)
- William Hanson reveals the vocabulary to adopt to join the upper classes
- Has devised a list of ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’ words to reflect life in 2017
- Stresses that the word ‘toilet’ is still unacceptable among the upper classes
I can tell your social class just by the words you use.
This isn’t a new concept – it’s one that’s always been around and is intrinsic to British life.
It used to be that if you were to say ‘sofa’ rather than ‘settee’ you would be more Buckingham Palace than Crystal Palace.
If your evening meal was your ‘dinner’ then that was solid; and if you popped to the ‘lavatory’ rather than the ‘toilet’ then you would surely rise upwards through the social ranks.
William Hanson reveals the language you need to avoid if you wish to join the upper classes
But these words are now fairly commonplace for those wishing to better themselves. There are now many new words that can expose your humble origins should you let one slip in quality company.
This is what was termed ‘U and Non-U’ in the 1950s. U meaning ‘upper class’ and ‘Non-U’ meaning ‘non upper class’.
Prepare to hastily adjust your language, or relax in the comfort that you are already at the top of social Everest, with my updated U and Non-U list for 2017.
Since the 1950s English cuisine has had a total transformation but (for so many reasons) it is hard to imagine the Mitford set ever going into an exposed-brick ‘eatery’ (Non-U) and ordering smashed ‘avo’ on toast with a side of ‘beets’.
Call a spade a spade and do not contract just to make yourself look cool. You look anything but.
Alcohol is never ‘booze’.
Any ‘invite’ (Non-U) that promises ‘fizz on arrival’ should be very swiftly torn up before you enter into fits of hysteria as to why your name is on a list where people think you’d be enticed by such an offer.
When people write ‘fizz’ it is usually code for ‘you’re not getting Champagne’.
My thoughts on Prosecco and cava have been well documented before, but if your taste or budget doesn’t allow for the grander Champagne then don’t make it doubly worse by using a euphemism like ‘fizz’. Again, we return to the rule of calling a spade a spade.
Similarly, ‘vino’ is definitely out and Non-U, even if said ironically. Irony won’t save you here.
The world of coffee has become terribly Non-U. It is very rare to be able to order just a ‘black coffee’ and have a waiter or barman know exactly what you mean. That horrid drink dubbed the Americano is not what we meant, is it?
In the world of too much choice, make sure this does not affect your lexicon when inviting a friend out for a coffee.
Never say, ‘shall we meet next week for a latte?’ Your preference is a) irrelevant and also – to be really, really U – it should be nothing but a black coffee that you order, anyway.
The biggest indicator of someone’s social background according to William is whether or not they use the word toilet
God Bless America
The influence of America and the global brand-obsessed culture has a lot to answer for when it comes to modern class language use and abuse.
To be a U speaker please know you are not going to ‘catch a movie’; you are going to ‘see a film’.
You do not greet someone (or start an email) with ‘hey’. It is what horses eat, not a salutation.
When there is nothing left on your plate you have ‘finished’, you are not ‘done’.
THE HISTORY OF U AND NON-U
In 1954 a little-known linguistics professor, Alan S. C. Ross published a study in a Finnish academic journal revealing the language choices of the British upper classes.
This would have gone largely unnoticed if it wasn’t for author and socialite Nancy Mitford popularising the list a few years later in 1956.
It caused somewhat of a furore in British life when published. Some U speakers were horrified their silent language shibboleths had been exposed and some Non-U speakers were thrilled and began studiously swatting up on what they should an should not be saying.
But seventy years later some of the words on Mitford’s list seem terribly old fashioned and have changed meaning.
Take ‘wireless’ for example, which she said was the must-say word over ‘radio’. Today, ‘wireless’ means something totally different, and even the most traditional upper crust of Brits have abandoned calling mirrors ‘looking glasses’.
And never request that black coffee by saying ‘can I get’ as you aren’t actually fetching anything – the waiter is doing the work. Ask ‘may I please have’ instead.
As someone once said: ‘there is no such thing as American English. There is English and then there are mistakes.’
Temper your language when social climbing to monitor your use of brand names.
What brand and model of something you have is totally irrelevant, so do not show off by telling colleagues you need to answer a call on your ‘iPhone’ or reply to an email on your ‘Blackberry’.
When you arrive home that evening and you cannot be bothered to cook then you will be ordering a takeaway (U) and not a Deliveroo (Non-U). The choice of food delivery app doesn’t matter. It’s still a takeaway.
If you leave the house after dinner and need a taxi (U) then call it that – an Uber (Non-U) is just a type of taxi.
Using brand names is showing off and uppers generally don’t like that.
The educated graduated from ‘university’ (U). The rest graduated from ‘uni’ (Non-U).
Make sure that your first or second class degree isn’t sullied and undermined by using an ugly contraction like ‘uni’.
‘Universities’ have ‘terms’. ‘Unis’ have ‘semesters’.
The T word is still banned
Whereas some words have been pruned from the 1950s list, some of them still count as silent language shibboleths that can be used to determine someone’s social background: the biggest one being ‘toilet’, which is still very, very Non-U.
Despite left-leaning magazines like Tatler deliberately trying to wind everyone up by proclaiming we can now all say ‘toilet’ without consequence, there are still many PLU who would rather give birth to a chair than utter the clunky word for what is actually a ‘lavatory’. (Loo is fine, too, but lavatory is the most correct.)
For those who don’t know, historically your ‘toilet’ was your appearance, your makeup; hence your ‘toiletries bag’. The porcelain thing you use is the lavatory. So toilet is not only an ugly word but also factually incorrect.
When making a documentary for BBC Radio 4 I took issue with Tatler’s editor by telling her that many of us were livid – seething – that they had abused their position. Apparently, taking this stance makes me a ‘moron’ (her words). Well, I may be a moron but I am a moron with standards.
U and non-U English usage, with “U” standing for “upper class”, and “non-U” representing the aspiring middle classes, was part of the terminology of popular discourse of social dialects (sociolects) in Britain in the 1950s. The debate did not concern itself with the speech of the working classes, who in many instances used the same words as the upper classes. For this reason, the different vocabularies often can appear quite counter-intuitive: the middle classes prefer “fancy” or fashionable words, even neologisms and often euphemisms, in attempts to make themselves sound more refined (“posher than posh”), while the upper classes in many cases stick to the same plain and traditional words that the working classes also use, as, confident in the security of their social position, they have no need to seek to display refinement.
The debate was set in motion in 1954 by the British linguist Alan S. C. Ross, professor of linguistics in the University of Birmingham. He coined the terms “U” and “non-U” in an article, on the differences that social class makes in English language usage, published in a Finnish professional linguistics journal. Though his article included differences in pronunciation and writing styles, it was his remark about differences of vocabulary that received the most attention.
The English author Nancy Mitford was alerted and immediately took up the usage in an essay, “The English Aristocracy”, which Stephen Spender published in his magazine Encounter in 1954. Mitford provided a glossary of terms used by the upper classes, unleashing an anxious national debate about English class-consciousness and snobbery, which involved a good deal of soul-searching that itself provided fuel for the fires. The essay was reprinted, with contributions by Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, and others, as well as a “condensed and simplified version” of Ross’ original article, as Noblesse Oblige: an Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy in 1956. Betjeman’s poem How to Get on in Society concluded the collection.
The issue of U and non-U could have been taken lightheartedly, but at the time many took it very seriously. This was a reflection of the anxieties of the middle class in Britain of the 1950s, recently emerged from post-war austerities. In particular the media used it as a launch pad for many stories, making much more out of it than was first intended. In the meantime, the idea that one might “improve oneself” by adopting the culture and manner of one’s “betters”, instinctively assented to before World War II, was now greeted with resentment.
Some of the terms and the ideas behind them were largely obsolete by the late 20th century, when, in the United Kingdom, reverse snobbery led younger members of the British upper and middle classes to adopt elements of working class speech (see: Estuary English and Mockney). Yet many, if not most, of the differences remain very much current, and therefore perfectly usable as class indicators.
The dramatist Alan Bennett entitled a TV documentary set in a northern hotel Dinner at Noon, which largely consisted of him musing on social class.
From 1952, a list of recommended ‘genteelisms’ to replace ‘normal’ words in your vocabulary.
(A Few Notes On Words & Other Things, 1952)
English speakers enjoy what seems like an unmatched curiosity about the origins and historical usages of their language’s curses. The exceedingly popular “F word” has accreted an especially wide body of textual investigation, wide-eyed speculation, and implausible folk etymology. (One of the term’s well-known if spurious creation myths even has a Van Halen album named after it.) “The history begins in murky circumstances,” says the Oxford English Dictionary‘s site, and that dictionary of dictionaries has managed to place the word’s earliest print appearance in the early sixteenth century, albeit written “in code” and “in a mixed Latin-and-English context.” Above, you can see one of the few concrete pieces of information we have on the matter: the first definitive use of the F word in “the English adjectival form, which implies use of the verb.”
Here the word appears (for the first time if not the last) noted down by hand in the margins of a proper text, in this case Cicero’s De Officiis. “It’s a monk expressing his displeasure at an abbot,” writes Katharine Trendacosta at i09. “In the margins of a guide to moral conduct. Because of course.” She quotes Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, as declaring it “difficult to know” whether this marginalia-making monk meant the word literally, to accuse this abbott of “questionable monastic morals,” or whether he used it “as an intensifier, to convey his extreme dismay.” Either way, it holds a great deal of value for scholars of language, given, as the OED puts it, “the absence of the word from most printed text before the mid twentieth century” and the “quotation difficulties” that causes. If you find nothing to like in the F word’s ever-increasing prevalence in the media, think of it this way: at least future lexicographers of swearing will have more to go on.