“Clinton Team Starts to Cautiously Look at Running Mates,” blares the headline in the April 24, 2016, morning edition of the Times, widely considered the newspaper of record of the United States.
Reaction from teachers of English was swift—and harsh. “We spend hours each quarter teaching students not to split their infinitives,and what does The New York Times do? It splits an infinitive!” says Mabel Goldsmith, an English teacher in Public School 371 in the Bronx and chair of the school’s English Department. “We expect better from The New York Times.”
“In a day and age when we’re competing with Twitter and Facebook for eyeballs, the Times has to go and scrap the hard work of teachers by disregarding one of the bedrock rules of grammar without explanation, without warning, and without regard to the effect it might have on other rules of English,” says Theobold James Hastings, professor of English at Dartmouth College and chair of the English Committee at the American Academy of Language.
English language specialists say there are two ways to write the headline. The first is to place “cautiously” after “look,” so the headline reads, “Clinton Team Starts to Look Cautiously at Running Mates.” The second approach is to place “cautiously” after “team,” so the headline reads, “Clinton Team Cautiously Starts to Look at Running Mates.”
Bernard Culverson, headline editor at The New York Times, says he stands by the word order chosen for the sentence. “Was I worried about splitting the infinitive?” he says. “Of course. But sometimes rules are meant to be broken.”
Culverson says placement of “look” after “cautiously” gives the impression the Clinton team is looking cautiously, but that’s not what it’s doing. It’s starting cautiously, so the second construction, with “cautiously” placed after “team,” would be the proper one. But that word order wouldn’t work with the space they had available on the page. “We couldn’t say ‘Clinton Team Cautiously’ on the first line because it has too many characters,” says Culverson. “We had to bump ‘cautiously’ to the second line, which meant we had to split the infinitive. It was a tough call. But you have to make those sometimes.”
In any case, he says, keeping the infinitive together can look weird in certain contexts. “Nobody says ‘cautiously to look,'” he says. “Sometimes you just have to get real.”
This is a work of satire. It is fictional news article not meant to be taken seriously. Photo: pd (Creative Commons). Not necessarily an endorsed use of image.
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