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

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The Independent Online

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".