Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

No Split, Sherlock!

Posted by Neal on February 28, 2011

I was reading the business section of the Columbus Dispatch today, and was three paragraphs into an article about changes to Google’s search engine when I ran into this sentence:

What Google called “a major improvement” was designed to highlight sites with high-quality content and noticeably will affect about 12 percent of all U.S. searches.

All right, that’s it! I thought. Enough was enough. For months I’ve been noticing a strong preference in the Dispatch not to let adverbs come between auxiliary verbs and main verbs. Noticeably will affect? It’s not ungrammatical, but it’s definitely awkward. I would say will noticeably affect, wouldn’t you? Even so, in articles by the Dispatch‘s own reporters, the possibility existed that the reporters really did find this the most natural syntax. But this article was by one Mike Swift, of the San Jose (California) Mercury News, so I decided to find the original article and see how it was worded. Sure enough, the original sentence was worded will noticeably affect.

Some copy editor, or copy editors, at the Dispatch must have been infected with a constraint against splitting auxiliary verbs and main verbs. In its entry for “adverbs”, MWDEU says that this “erroneous idea” is common among journalists. Arnold Zwicky wrote about this rule in this Language Log post, diagnosing it as an effect of the senseless rule against split infinitives “contaminating” constructions that don’t involve infinitives at all. In the post, he discusses several examples of this kind of contamination; see Act 3 for this kind.

4 Responses to “No Split, Sherlock!”

  1. The Ridger said

    But … but it doesn’t mean the same thing! The original means that the effect will be noticeable. The rewrite means that it will be noticed that 12% of the users will be affected.

    • Neal said

      Good point! Thinking about it, I think the way the Dispatch rephrased it, it could also have the original meaning, but still and all, now it’s ambiguous when it didn’t need to be.

  2. […] Recent Comments click here on Kathy Griffin, Pro Bono Divorce AttorneyThe Ridger on No One Expects the Boy Scout Inquisition!The Ridger on No One Expects the Boy Scout Inquisition!Ran on Before or SinceNeal on No Split, Sherlock! […]

  3. Thank you! Newsday has this problem, too, and it peeves me to no end!

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