Split infinitives, Predictable violence in 'liberated' Iraq and others

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Split infinitives: making the case for the prosecution

Split infinitives: making the case for the prosecution

Sir: Guy Keleny asks for a "case for the prosecution" against split infinitives (Errors & Omissions, 13 November). I suggest the case is that the language itself is so resistant to the practice. For centuries people have been trying to split, yet we remain uncomfortable with the construction.

The reason why we are uncomfortable is that the colourless to, which forms the infinitive, needs to be very close to its verb in order for the infinitive to be readily comprehended. One can get away with inserting a single adverb, or even occasionally a phrase, but even these are nearly always avoidable, and it feels more comfortable to do so. This makes the construction quite different from "would dearly love", where would carries the full force of a modal verb (compare will, can, etc), so no strain or loss of clarity results if it is separated from the verb which it governs.

By contrast, "to at once do it" has less immediacy, and feels instinctively less comfortable, than "to do it at once". One could get away with it, if one consciously wished to do so - but there should be a good reason. "To today go", for obvious phonological reasons, is even more daring, and few would think it advisable.

And if both of those do seem acceptable, I suspect even the most hardened splitter would hesitate to approve the following: "It wasn't very helpful to on a day like this, just when I was beginning to get on top of things, ask me to do another job for you."

So I suggest that we all instinctively feel a need for the to to come very close to its verb, and that we are uncomfortable with anything more than the smallest separation. Since it can nearly always be avoided without difficulty or ambiguity, the recommendation to avoid it where possible (which is virtually everywhere), is a good one.

Liskeard, Cornwall

Predictable violence in 'liberated' Iraq

Sir: The accusation by John Rentoul that no one could have predicted the violence to engulf Iraq post "liberation" (Opinion, 16 November) is both outrageous and false. It is an attempt to rewrite history in more favourable terms to Mr Blair and his followers.

Many people predicted exactly that. Not least of all Robert Fisk in The Independent, who wrote soon after the fall of Baghdad that the real battle for Iraq would now begin. Pre-war commentators, such as Eric Shineski, also reported in The Independent, stated that "several hundred thousand troops" would be required to maintain law and order. Middle Eastern academics from top UK universities sought a personal meeting with the PM to try and explain the likelihood of post-conquest chaos. Again this was reported in The Independent.

There is a pernicious attempt at historical revisionism currently being undertaken by the Blair sycophants to apportion no blame at all to the PM as nothing could be foreseen. This is despite a catalogued series of instances where experts who did know were sidelined to satisfy the political beliefs and biases of the decision-makers.

King's Somborne, Hampshire

Sir: Although Colin Powell may not be as hawkish as Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, he is no dove ("Colin Powell, the lone dove, quits", 16 November).

Powell was a lifelong soldier who made his name during the 1991 Gulf War when he served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and notably commented during the Desert Shield operation: "First we are going to cut [the Iraqis] off, then we are going to kill them." The "Powell Doctrine" outlined his vision for effective military action and included the use of disproportionate and overwhelming force.

Although in theory Powell favoured multilateral operations where possible and the use of force as a last resort, when tested he came up short. Ultimately Powell never questioned the rationale behind the war - just the method of carrying it out. His presentation on Iraq to the United Nations in February 2003 demonstrated his capitulation to the Rumsfeld way of doing things as he reeled off a list of lies about Iraq's nonexistent WMD in an attempt to pass a war of choice off as a "last resort".

If Powell appears "doveish" it is only because those around him are so extraordinarily shameless about their belief in making war.


Straw and Trotsky

Sir: Considering that he was part of the team that misrepresented so-called intelligence about Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" to the House of Commons, the UN and the British public, one could hardly expect Jack Straw (letter, 16 November) to do anything other than twist the truth about the contents of the two works he cites in his attack on Trotskyism.

Lenin's Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder is far from being a "prescient warning about Trotskyist adventurism". It is a polemic aimed largely at the British Communists, criticising their refusal to collaborate with the Labour Party. As I remember it, there is hardly a mention of Trotsky in the whole pamphlet. This is hardly surprising, since in 1919, when the work was published, there was scarcely a difference between Lenin (the leader of the Party) and Trotsky (Commissar for War and commander of the Red Army).

As for Isaac Deutscher's trilogy (each volume of which refers to Trotsky in its title as "The Prophet") it used to be, and probably still is, required reading for "Trots".

It is also interesting that Straw refers warmly to the "Trot-spotting" training he received under the tutelage of that unreconstructed Stalinist, Bert Ramelson, one of the cheerleaders for the Stalinist regime in the USSR during its darkest, most blood-sodden days.

London N16

Sir: I followed Jack Straw's recommendation, but could find no reference in Lenin's Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder to "Trotskyist adventurism".

I did come across descriptions of Labour Party leaders who supported the First World War as "hopelessly reactionary", "accomplices in imperialist banditry", "opportunists", "traitors", etc. There was also some suggestion that in Great Britain "the work of propaganda, agitation and organisation among the armed forces and among the oppressed and underprivileged nationalities in their own state (Ireland and the colonies [the British army was putting down resistance in Iraq]) must be tackled in a ... revolutionary way ... In the era of imperialism in general and especially today after a war that was a sore trial to the peoples and has quickly opened their eyes to the truth... all the spheres of social life are heavily charged with inflammable material and are creating numerous causes of conflicts, crises and an intensification of class struggle."

I'm not sure that was the "prescient warning" Comrade Straw was asking us to rediscover. Or perhaps New Labour is working from a modernised version of the script? Either way, I hope there'll be no more harangues of those who support the right of the Iraqi people to resist occupation and no charges of "incitement to disaffection" against those who agitate for soldiers not to follow immoral and illegal orders.

London E12

Sir: As an old Trot I was more amused than irritated that Robert Fisk should have misclassified Jack Straw. But I was intrigued by Straw's confession that it was Bert Ramelson who taught him how to "spot a trot".

I wonder whether Ramelson was really such an ace trot-spotter as Straw thinks. After all, Ramelson was a leading light in a party that applauded the conviction and execution of Old Bolsheviks and thousands of others on charges of Trotskyism. As the Soviet government was subsequently obliged to admit, most of these victims had nothing to do with Trotskyism. Either Ramelson had quite failed to spot that they were not Trots, or he had realised they were not and kept quiet about it. Either way he seems a quite unsuitable role model.

London SW18

Sir: Jack Straw (letter, 16 November), alert as ever to false consciousness, clearly preferred in 1965 to take lessons from a party whose leaders supported the slaughter of thousands of insurgents in Budapest in 1956. Today he supports parties whose leaders practise the same imperialist politics in Fallujah and Grozny. Whose consciousness is as false today as it was then?


Sir: I too had noted Robert Fisk's slip with regard to Jack Straw. Of course, as confirmed by Comrade Straw's own letter, the phrase Fisk should have used is "Old Stalinist".

Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys

Porton Down tests

Sir: An MoD historian says that no link has been found between volunteers for cold cure research and chemical agent tests at Porton Down ("Porton Down volunteer 'unlawfully killed' ", 16 November). The cold cure "notices" veterans referred to were a standard feature in the Station Routine Orders of every RAF station in the 1950s. If copies have not been found the historian cannot have looked very hard. Furthermore, volunteers were required to submit a "general application" for the cold cure tests. Surely at least some of these survive?

I suspect that not one of the volunteers ever took part in cold cure research but, like my brother, were told on arrival at Porton Down that the cold cure research had finished and "now that you're here, how about helping us with other tests?".

As an RAF apprentice on 17/6 (88p) a week, I volunteered for the cold cure tests that offered nearly £4 extra. I was turned down because I was only 15. Thank the Lord for small mercies!

Sqn Ldr RAF (Retired)
Brecon, Powys

Left or right

Sir: What a happy world Tim Hammond inhabits (letter, 15 November)! We are told that all capitalists treat their workforces with the same care as one would if entrusted with the Crown Jewels. Try telling that to those pressured to work absurdly long hours, especially in the UK and the US, only to find that they can be sacked very easily if their face no longer fits. (That can't happen so easily in the "backward" eurozone!) Or try telling it to those who see their hard-earned pensions disappear like snow off the dyke while the top 2 per cent continue to feather their nests.

Some of us still have a clear conception of right and left in politics: the right wing emphasises a conflict-based way of running things based on unfettered competition between individuals; while the left emphasises the more collaborative approach. It is perfectly possible to run a free-market economy which makes serious attempts to steer in the latter direction.

Swindon, Staffordshire

Pensions levy

Sir: Claims that the Government attempted to introduce a "poll tax" on pension funds, namely retain indefinitely a flat-fee levy for the forthcoming Pensions Protection Fund, are inaccurate ("Peers vote out 'poll tax' pensions levy", 5 November). The Government is totally committed to introducing a risk-based levy as soon as is possible.

The vote was not, in fact, to decide whether or not the levy should be risk-based, but rather what proportion of the charge this would make up, and after what period it should come into force.

We do believe that a flat-rate levy in the first year is the best way to proceed. We would then introduce the risk-based levy as quickly as possible without forcing schemes to undertake a costly out-of-cycle valuation.

Minister of State for Pensions,
Department for Work and Pensions

Breaking faith

Sir: Bruce Anderson (Opinion, 15 November) and, for that matter, Michael Howard seem blind to the fact that a politician's adultery is of itself deeply problematic. If a man cannot keep a solemn vow made to his wife, how can he be trusted to honour any commitment made to the electorate?

Sandy, Bedfordshire

Smooth operator

Sir: I read with amusement Mark Wnek's comments about "the postmodern toupee" (Media, 15 November). Although I'm conscious of Mr Wnek's excellent reputation within the advertising industry, I had been previously unaware of his expertise in hairdressing. I'd be very receptive to any advice that he might be able to offer the legions of balding men, suffering from "nature's joke", as to how to best address the problem.

St Albans, Hertfordshire

Out in the open

Sir: "Until the 18th century, the only public places where art could be viewed were churches and cathedrals" ("Oh my God!", 12 November). So no statues, fountains etc, visible?


Legal culture

Sir: Robert Verkaik is right to identify the unequal culture of many law firms (report, 4 November). I am a solicitor and was part of a research group which found that nearly two-thirds of female solicitors are leaving the profession because they are prevented from balancing work and family life by archaic working practices. Women are often reluctant to take action for economic and professional reasons (who wants to employ a "trouble-maker"?) - perhaps they should simply refuse to have children instead?

(Former Chair of the Young Solicitors Group)
London SE26

Home and away

Sir: It's noticeable that "As if" goes on holiday from time to time, but Miles Kington is only ever "away". We know from internal evidence that he may be away at the Edinburgh Festival, for example, but does he ever go on holiday? I think we should be told.

Ledbury, Herefordshire