Brian Viner: Elect a leader who doesn't split infinitives

Share
Related Topics

There are several sound reasons to despise the TV commercial launched this week by the Republican presidential candidate John McCain in the hope of undermining his Democratic counterpart, Barack Obama. The ad shows Obama seemingly looking sympathetically at a picture of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the accompanying message reads: "Is it OK to Unconditionally Meet With Anti-American Foreign Leaders? Elect a Leader With Good Judgment."

We can only hope that McCain's negative campaigning backfires like a 30-year-old Chevrolet truck driven by a good ol' boy down the main street of a small town in Georgia. But never mind the political overtones, what about the grammatical implications for America and, by extension, the entire English-speaking world?

To Unconditionally Meet? We can just about overlook the indiscriminate use of capital letters, because Americans have never quite worked out when, and when not, to capitalise. But do we want as a man with his finger on the nuclear button, someone quite so complacent about splitting the infinitive?

It is more than 40 years since the makers of the TV series Star Trek trod similar lexicographical ground, sending the Starship Enterprise to explore the final frontier, "to boldly go where no man has gone before". Even then, in 1966, there was more indignation about the chauvinistic use of the word "man" than the split infinitive. Moreover, as long ago as 1897, a contributor to Academy magazine suggested that only pedants considered it a solecism to wage war on – or perhaps, on which to wage war – asking: "Are our critics aware that Byron is the father of their split infinitive? 'To slowly trace,' says the noble poet, 'the forest's shady scene.'"

Byron's near-contemporary Robert Burns was also an insouciant infinitive-splitter ("who dared to nobly stem tyrannic pride") and Daniel Defoe, Benjamin Franklin, William Wordsworth, George Eliot and Henry James were others.

So McCain is in distinguished company, but then his is an infinitive not so much split as severed. To Unconditionally Meet? Why not To Meet Unconditionally, which is easier on the ear as well as the page?

Promisingly for those of us who intend to boycott McDonald's, maple syrup, Levi Strauss jeans and the Disney Channel if America chooses McCain over Obama, the senior senator from Arizona and his team are having trouble finding the right words in other areas of their campaign too. Until the singer John Cougar Mellencamp asked them not to, they planned to deploy his song "Pink Houses" at strategic moments. But then someone pointed out that the lyrics would hardly have been appropriate anyway for a presidential hopeful, being about wasted potential.

It's amazing how often this happens to songs. One of the most popular choices to accompany first dances at weddings, with bride and groom looking dreamily into each other's eyes, is "You're Beautiful" by James Blunt. Yet it is about a man who glimpses a gorgeous woman on the subway and knows that she will never be his, hardly the ideal accompaniment to the first steps of a marriage.

Even less apt, but just as popular at weddings, is Lionel Richie's "Easy (Like Sunday Morning)". That's a man telling his woman that he can no longer stand the pain of being with her, so he's going to leave her tomorrow. Still, it might be just the song to repeatedly play if John McCain does somehow end up in a smooch with the American electorate.

Magna Carta? How funny

Since the 42-day vote, there has been much talk of the Magna Carta, all of it properly solemn, though I confess that references to the Magna Carta always make me smile. The culprit is Tony Hancock, or more accurately his brilliant writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.

"Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?" said Hancock, in the "Twelve Angry Men" episode of Hancock's Half-Hour, first transmitted in October 1959. For me, it is the funniest, most beautiful of all sitcom lines, but I concede that beauty is entirely in the ear of the listener, and I'm prepared to consider excerpts from Seinfeld, Frasier, The Larry Sanders Show, Fawlty Towers, Porridge and Dad's Army.

* Whatever the environmental rights and wrongs, the economic whys and wherefores, of Donald Trump's scheme to build the "greatest golf course in the world" on a deserted stretch of Aberdeenshire coast, it takes a golfer to recognise the real offence in his words.

The "greatest golf course in the world", like the most beautiful woman in the world or the finest painting in the world, is an entirely subjective matter.

The venerable Old Course at St Andrews has its proponents, as do Muirfield near Edinburgh, Ballybunion in Kerry, Ireland, and Pine Valley in New Jersey, America, and we can be sure that none of them will be Trumped.

Of course, a billionaire, an army of mechanical diggers and some handsome, windswept sand dunes is a felicitous combination in the drive to build a very good golf course, but nothing sums up The Donald's arrogance so much as his promise to deliver "the greatest".

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
The first lesson of today is... don't treat women unequally?  

Yvette Cooper is right: The classroom is the best place to start teaching men about feminism

Chris Maume
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice