(1) ing endings
Words ending in ing are mostly verbal participles or gerunds, and, as we shall see, it is not always easy to say which is which. By way of introduction it will be enough to observe that when they are of the nature of participles they may be true verbs (I was working) or adjectives (a working agreement) or in rare cases prepositions (concerning this question) or conjunctions (supposing this happened); if they are of the nature of gerunds they are always nouns (I am pleased at his coming) — or rather a hybrid between a noun and a verb, for you may use the gerund with the construction either of a noun (after the careful reading of these papers) or of a mixture between a verb and a noun (after carefully reading these papers). It is most confusing, but fortunately we are seldom called on to put a label on these words, and so I have preferred to give this section an indeterminate title.
Numerous pitfalls beset the use of ing-words. Here are some of them.
(a) Absolute construction
This is, in itself, straightforward enough The absolute construction, in the words of the O.E.D., is a name given to a phrase "standing out of grammatical relation or syntactical construction with other words". In the sentence
"The chairman having restored order, the committee resumed", the phrase "the chairman having restored order" forms an absolute construction.
But there is no absolute construction in the sentence "The chairman, having restored order, called on the last speaker to continue". Here the chairman is the subject of the sentence.
Because of a confusion with that type of sentence, it is a curiously common error to put a comma in the absolute construction. See Comma
(b) Unattached (or unrelated) participle.
This blunder is rather like the last. A writer begins a sentence with a participle (which, since it is a sort of adjective, must be given a noun to support it) and then forgets to give it its noun, thus leaving it "unattached".
Arising out of a collision between a removal van and a fully loaded bus in a fog, E. C. F., removal van driver, appeared on a charge of manslaughter.
Grammatically in this sentence it was the van-driver, not the charge against him, that arose out of the collision. He probably did; but that was not what the writer meant.
Whilst requesting you to furnish the return now outstanding you are advised that in future it would greatly facilitate.
Requesting is unattached. If the structure of this rather clumsy sentence is to be retained it must run "Whilst requesting you I advise you that..."
As I have said, some ing-words have won the right to be treated as prepositions. Among them are regarding, considering, owing to, concerning and failing. When any of these is used as a preposition, there can be no question of its being misused as an unattached participle:
Considering the attack that had been made on him, his speech was moderate in tone.
If, however, considering were used not as a preposition-participle but as an adjective-participle, it could be unattached. It is so in:
Considering the attack on him beneath his notice, his speech was moderate in tone.
Past participles, as well as present, may become unattached:
Administered at first by the National Gallery, it was not until 1917 that the appointment of a separate board and director enabled a fully independent policy to be pursued.
The writer must have started with the intention of making the Tate Gallery (about which he was writing) the subject of the sentence but changed his mind, and so 'administered' is left unattached.
Formal application is now being made for the necessary way-leave consent, and as soon as received the work will proceed.
Grammatically received can only be attached to work; and that is nonsense. The writer should have said "as soon as this is received".
(c) Unattached gerund
A gerund can become unattached in much the same way as a participle:
Indeed we know little of Stalin's personality at all: a few works of Bolshevik theory, arid and heavy, and speeches still more impersonal, without literary grace, repeating a few simple formulas with crushing weight — after reading these Stalin appears more a myth than a man.
Grammatically "after reading these" means after Stalin has read them, not after we have.
The use of unattached participles and gerunds is becoming so common that grammarians may soon have to throw in their hand and recognise it as idiomatic. But they have not done so yet; so it should be avoided.
(d) Gerund versus infinitive
In what seems to be a completely arbitrary way, some nouns, adjectives and verbs like to take an infinitive, and some a gerund with a preposition.
|Aim at doing||Try to do|
|Dislike of doing||Reluctance to do|
|Capable of doing||Able to do|
|Demur to doing||Hesitate to do|
|Prohibit from doing||Forbid to do|
Instances could be multiplied indefinitely. There is no rule; it can only be a matter of observation and consulting a dictionary when in doubt.
(e) The "fused participle"
All authorities agree that it is idiomatic English to write "the Bill's getting a second reading surprised everyone": that is to say it is correct to treat getting as a gerund requiring Bill's to be in the possessive. What they are not agreed about is whether it is also correct to treat getting as a participle, and write "the Bill getting a second reading surprised everyone". If that is a legitimate grammatical construction, the subject of the sentence, which cannot be Bill by itself, or getting by itself must be a fusion of the two. Hence the name "fused participle".
This is not in itself a matter of any great interest or importance. But it is notable as having been the occasion of a battle of the giants, Fowler and Jespersen. (38) Fowler condemned the "fused participle" as a construction "grammatically indefensible" that is "rapidly corrupting modern English style". Jespersen defended it against both these charges. Those best competent to judge seem to have awarded Jespersen a win on points.
What is certain is that sometimes we feel one construction to be the more idiomatic, and sometimes the other, and, in particular, that proper names and personal pronouns seem to demand the gerund. Nobody would prefer "He coming (or Smith coming) surprised me" to "His coming (or Smith's coming) surprised me". That is sure ground.
For the rest, it is always possible, and generally wise, to be on the safe side by turning the sentence round, and writing neither "the Bill getting, etc." (which offends some purists) nor "the Bill's getting, etc." (which sounds odd to some ears) but "everyone was surprised that the Bill got a second reading".
The subjunctive is the mood of imagination or command. Apart from the verb to be, it has no form separate from the indicative, except in the third person singular of the present tense, where the subjunctive form is the same as the indicative plural (he have, not he has ; he go, not he goes). Generally therefore, in sentences in which the subjunctive might be fitting, neither the writer nor the reader need know or care whether the subjunctive is being used or not.
But the verb to be spoils this simple picture. The whole of the present tense is different, for the subjunctive mood is be throughout — I be, he be, we be, you be and they be. The singular (but not the plural) of the past tense is also different — I were and he were instead of I was and he was. In the subjunctive mood what looks like the past tense does not denote pastness; it denotes a greater call on the imagination. Thus:
"If he is here" implies that it is as likely as not that he is.
"If he be here" is an archaic way of saying "if he is here".
"If he were here" implies that he is not.
The subjunctive is dying; the indicative is superseding it more and more. Its only remaining regular uses are:
(a) In certain stock phrases: "Be it so", "God bless you", "come what may", "if need be" and others.
(b) In legal or formal language: "I move that Mr. Smith be appointed Secretary".
In America this last usage has never been confined to formal language, but is usual in such sentences as "I ask that he be sent for", "It is important that he be there", and even in the negative form "he insisted that the statement not be placed on record", in which the custom in this country was to insert a should. We are now adopting the American practice, and one may read any day in newspaper articles or reports of speeches such sentences as:
No one would suggest that a unique, and in the main supremely valuable work, be halted.
Public opinion demands that an inquiry be held.
He is anxious that the truth be known.
(c) In conditional sentences where the hypothesis is not a fact:
Were this true, it would be a serious matter.
If he were here I would tell him what I think of him.
(d) With as if and as though, if the hypothesis is not accepted as true, thus:
He spoke of his proposal as if it were a complete solution of the difficulty.
Other correct uses of the subjunctive may be found in contemporary writings, but it is probably true of all of them that the indicative would have been equally correct, and certainly true of many of them that the subjunctive has a formal, even pedantic, air. The notice "Please do not ring unless an answer be required", though still, I believe, to be found on some academic front doors, strikes us today as an archaism.
(3) Misuse of the passive
Grammarians condemn such constructions as the following, which indeed condemn themselves by their contorted ugliness:
The report that is proposed to be made.
Several amendments were endeavoured to be inserted.
A question was threatened to be put on the paper.
A sensational atmosphere is attempted to be created.
Anyone who finds that he has written a sentence like this should recast it, e.g. "the proposed report", "attempts were made to insert several amendments", "a threat was made to put a question on the paper", "an attempt is being made to create a sensational atmosphere", "Motion made: that the words proposed to be left out stand part of the question" is an ancient and respectable Parliamentary formula, but should not be allowed to infect ordinary writing.
Hope should not be used in the passive except in the impersonal phrase it is hoped. We may say "It is hoped that payment will be made next week", or "payment is expected to be made next week", but not "payment is hoped to be made next week". The phrasal verb hope for, being transitive, can of course be used in the passive.
(4) Omission of verb
Where a verb is used with more than one auxiliary (e.g. "he must and shall go") make sure that the main verb is repeated unless, as in this example, its form is the same. It is easy to slip into such a sentence as:
The steps which those responsible can and are at present taking to remedy this state of affairs.
Can taking makes no sense. The proper construction is shown in:
The board must take, and are in fact taking, all possible steps to maintain production.
(5) Shall and will
Twenty pages devoted to this subject in The King's English begin with the following introduction:
It is unfortunate that the idiomatic use, while it comes by nature to southern Englishmen (who will find most of this section superfluous), is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it; and for them the section is in danger of being useless. In apology for the length of these remarks it must be said that the short and simple directions often given are worse than useless. The observant reader soon loses faith in them from their constant failure to take him right; and the unobservant is the victim of false security.
Fowler's view in short amounts to this: that if anyone has been brought up among those who use the right idiom, he has no need of instruction; if he has not, he is incapable of being instructed, because any guidance that is short and clear will mislead him and any that is full and accurate will be incomprehensible to him.
Every English text-book will be found to begin by stating the rule that to express the "plain" future shall is used in the first person and will in the second and third:
I shall go
You will go
He will go
and that if it is a matter not of plain future but of volition, permission or obligation it is the other way round:
I will go (I am determined to go or I intend to go)
You shall go (You must go, or you are permitted to go)
He shall go (He must go, or he is permitted to go)
But the idiom of the Celts is different. They have never recognised "I shall go". For them "I will go" is the plain future. The story is a very old one of the drowning Scot who was misunderstood by English onlookers and left to his fate because he cried, "I will drown and nobody shall save me".
American practice follows the Celtic, and in this matter, as in so many others, the English have taken to imitating the American. If we go by practice rather than by precept, we can no longer say dogmatically that "I will go" for the plain future is wrong, or smugly with Dean Alford:
I never knew an Englishman who misplaced shall and will; I hardly ever have known an Irishman or Scotsman who did not misplace them sometimes.
The Irish and the Scots are having their revenge for our bland assumption that English usage must be "right" and theirs "wrong".
Nevertheless the rule for the official must be to be orthodox on doubtful points of doctrine, and text-book orthodoxy in England still prescribes shall with the first person to express the plain future.
(6) Would and should
The various shades of meaning of would and should derive in the main from the primary ideas of resolve in will and of obligation in shall: ideas illustrated in their simplest form by "he would go" (he was determined to go, or he made a habit of going) and "he should go" (he ought to go).
As colourless auxiliaries, merely indicating the subjunctive mood, the text-book rule is that should is used in the first person and would in the second and third. Should, which is colourless in the first person, resumes its tinge of ought in the others: in "If you tried you should succeed" it has a nuance not present in "If I tried I should succeed". But the rule requiring should in the first person is now largely ignored (compare Shall and will); would and should are used indifferently. Even a Professor of Poetry can now use them for what seems to be merely elegant variation:
If we could plot each individual poet's development, we would get a different pattern with each and we would see the pattern changing. . . . We should notice Mr. Auden, for example, breaking suddenly away from the influence of Thomas Hardy....
In such a phrase as "In reply to your letter of. . . I would inform you . . ." would is not a mere auxiliary expressing the conditional mood; it retains the now archaic meaning of "I should like to". On another page I have deprecated the use of this expression on the ground that, since it is archaic, it cannot help being stiff.
Because would has this meaning, grammarians condemn such phrases as "I would like to", "I would be glad if", "I would be obliged if" and so on. Should, they say, ought always to be used: to say would is tantamount to saying "I should like to like to", "I should like to be glad if", "I should like to be obliged if" and so on.
"It would appear" and "I should think" are less dogmatic, and therefore more polite, ways of saying "it appears" and "I think".
(7) Split infinitive
The well-known grammarians' rule against splitting an infinitive means that nothing must come between to and the verb. It is a bad name, as was pointed out by Jespersen, a grammarian as broad-minded as he was erudite.
This name is bad because we have many infinitives without to, as "I made him go". To therefore is no more an essential part of the infinitive than the definite article is an essential part of a nominative, and no one would think of calling the good man a split nominative.
It is a bad rule too; it increases the difficulty of writing clearly and makes for ambiguity by inducing writers to place adverbs in unnatural and even misleading positions.
A recent visit to Greece has convinced me that the modern Englishman fails completely to recognise that....
Some of the stones . . . must have been of such a size that they failed completely to melt before they reached the ground.
Does the modern Englishman completely fail to recognise, or does he fail to completely recognise? Did the hailstones completely fail to melt, or did they fail to completely melt? The reader has to guess and he ought never to have to guess. In these two examples the context shows that the right guess for one will be the wrong guess for the other.
Nor is this all. The split infinitive taboo, leading as it does to the putting of adverbs in awkward places, is so potent that it produces an impulse to put them there even though there is not really any question of avoiding a split infinitive. I have myself been taken to task by a correspondent for splitting an infinitive because I wrote "I gratefully record". He was, no doubt, under the influence of the taboo to an exceptional extent. But sufferers from the same malady in a milder form can be found on every hand. We cannot doubt that the writer of the sentence "they appeared completely to have adjusted themselves to it" put the adverb in that uncomfortable position because he thought that to write "to have completely adjusted" would be to split an infinitive. The same fear, probably subconscious, may also be presumed to account for the unnatural placing of the adverb in "so tangled is the web that I cannot pretend for a moment that we have succeeded entirely in unweaving it". In this there is no possibility of splitting an infinitive because there is no infinitive. But the split infinitive bogy is having such a devastating effect that people are beginning to feel that it must be wrong to put an adverb between any auxiliary and any part of a verb, or between any preposition and any part of a verb.
The infinitive can be split only by inserting a word or words between to and the word which, with to, forms the infinitive of the verb. "To fully understand" is a split infinitive. So is "to fully have understood". But "to have fully understood" is not.
In the first edition of Plain Words I wrote of the rule against the split infinitive:
Still, there is no doubt that the rule at present holds sway, and on my principle the official has no choice but to conform; for his readers will almost certainly attribute departures from it to ignorance of it, and so, being moved to disdain of the writer, will not be "affected precisely as he wishes".
A friend whose opinion I value has reproached me for this, making no secret of his view that I am little better than a coward. I ought, he tells me, to have the courage of my convictions. I ought to say about the split infinitive, as I said about the "inanimate whose", that it is right for the official to give a lead in freeing writers from this fetish. The farthest I ought to allow myself to go along the road of safety-first is, according to him, to say that it is judicious for an official to avoid splitting whenever he can do so without sacrificing clarity, ease and naturalness of expression. But rather than make that sacrifice he should resolutely split.
My friend may be right. Rebels will find themselves in good company. Here is an example of a good literary craftsman goaded into apologetic rebellion against this tyranny:
As for Spotted Fat, that prudent animal (whom the Go-go now proceeded to condignly beat till ordered to desist) had swum straight ashore without the slightest effort.
Having written this sentence in his book On the Eaves of the World, Reginald Farrer appended the footnote:
I have never yet, I believe, split an infinitive in my life; here, for the first time in my experience, I fancy the exigencies of rhythm and meaning do really compel me.
Bernard Shaw was emphatically on the side of the rebels. In 1892 he wrote to the Chronicle:
If you do not immediately suppress the person who takes it upon himself to lay down the law almost every day in your columns on the subject of literary composition, I will give up the Chronicle. The man is a pedant, an ignoramus, an idiot and a self-advertising duffer....Your fatuous specialist . . . is now beginning to rebuke "second-rate" newspapers for using such phrases as "to suddenly go" and "to boldly say". I ask you, Sir, to put this man out. . . without interfering with his perfect freedom of choice between "to suddenly go", to "go suddenly" and "suddenly to go".. Set him adrift and try an intelligent Newfoundland dog in his place. (39)
But the most vigorous rebel could hardly condone splitting so resolute as the crescendo of this lease.
The tenant hereby agrees: