So much of what we thought we knew …

Cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker is my intellectual hero. I can match his hair (for colour as well as profusion), but that’s about it. To first read his work on human nature and language was, for me, life changing.

He also writes beautifully and this article in The Guardian is a wonderfully erudite and very funny challenge to what he calls the “self-anointed mavens” of grammar and usage.

My favourite bit, as you might have guessed from my own fearless third sentence, is the long section on split infinitives. Here is a sample:

The very terms “split infinitive” and “split verb” are based on a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split a verb because it consists of a single word, such as amare, “to love”. But in English, the so-called infinitive “to write” consists of two words, not one: the subordinator “to” and the plain form of the verb “write”, which can also appear without “to” in constructions such as “She helped him pack” and “You must be brave.” There is not the slightest reason to interdict an adverb from the position before the main verb, and great writers in English have placed it there for centuries. Indeed, the spot in front of the main verb is often the most natural resting place for an adverb, and sometimes it is the only resting place. Unsplitting the infinitive in the New Yorker cartoon caption “I’m moving to France to not get fat” (yielding “I’m moving to France not to get fat”) would garble the meaning, and doing so with “Profits are expected to more than double this year,” would result in gibberish: “Profits are expected more than to double this year.”

Of course the whole article is really a promotional piece for his new book, but I don’t care; it’s my birthday this weekend and I know what I’m wishing for.


“A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”

Doing some research to check a client’s claim in draft copy that the “national deficit is at an all-time high” – debt and deficit were being confused – I was delighted to be reacquainted with the great Simpsons neologism ‘embiggen’. The Guardian’s data blog mischievously (and correctly?) used it as a synonym for grow, expand, enlarge – “Click image to embiggen” – in one of its embedded graphics. The Simpsons live in Springfield, where the town motto runs thus, “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”

But if Wikepedia is to be believed, embiggen’s true origins lie in the 19th century!

…in an 1884 edition of the British journal Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc. by C. A. Ward … “but the people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly. After all, use is nearly everything.”

And it has now found its way into the language of high energy physics:

“For large P, the three-form fluxes are dilute, and the gradient of the Myers potential encouraging an anti-D3 to embiggen is very mild.”

And why not? It is, as Springfield teacher Miss Hoover rightly observes, “a perfectly cromulent word.”