Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Surreal? It's business as usual

Lorde and Joel Little were winners ... now the world goes on its way. Photo / AP
Lorde and Joel Little were winners ... now the world goes on its way. Photo / AP

Last week, I wrote on the eve of the Grammy awards in which Ella Yelich O'Connor and my son Joel won awards.

The experience, despite what some have suggested was not at all surreal. In context it was perfectly normal. These people - your Jay Zs and Pharrells and Lamars - live, work and socialise together. The Grammys were simply business as usual for the local acts.

The only really extraordinary factoid to come my way was hearing that a ticket had been sold on the black market for $14,000 - bought by a fan for whom seeing Paul McCartney perform meant that much.

The parties were big, elaborate, noisy and seemed designed to please people who yearned to experience what it was like to be in the trenches in World War I.

And the best bits about being there were being able to use social media to share a little of the pride and joy with enthusiastic friends and family back home, and the chance to reflect on it all over pizza the day after with friends and family who were in Los Angeles for the occasion.

In the next couple of days, Lorde came home to Auckland to fulfil a promise to perform, Joel went back to work making music in a Los Angeles studio and the world went on its way as though something had happened.

Weeks have gone by since the brave knight Chris Finlayson took up his lance against the numerous faults his staff displayed in their written and spoken English. Yet nothing has changed and the world has continued to turn. How can we reconcile these two seemingly mutually exclusive events?

Finlayson lambasted jargon and cliches, but one of his most severe strictures was a ban on split infinitives. These are the basic form of verbs - to run, to eat - and they are split if you put a word between the parts - to quickly run, to greedily eat.

The rule is that infinitives should not be split. But, like much of our so-called correct grammar, the rule was invented in the 19th century as a class marker. Prompted by the spread of free education to the poor the upper classes decided to codify English grammar and teach it in their schools so they could recognise each other easily when out and about. Most of the rules were taken from Latin, in which infinitives are one word. Because our infinitives are two words, it was decided the pair needed to be kept together to stay as close to the Latin model as possible. Yet infinitives have been split by Dickens, Austen and of course Shatner, who had "to boldly go, where no man has gone before". No one died.

I teach this stuff as corporate training occasionally, and I tell students the rules I am giving them are what the likes of the minister thinks are correct and that they are worth knowing. I emphasise that, although it's possible no one will notice if they don't follow the rules, it's certain no one will mind if they do.

But either way, don't stress. To paraphrase the comedian Lenny Bruce, no child should ever come home from school crying after being told off for splitting an infinitive.

As usual with pedants, Finlayson is guilty of the errors he complains about. Take, for instance, his admission that this was "just my little jihad".

Jihad in this usage is a cliche. It should be rejected in favour of whatever perfectly good word was used before: campaign or mission, say, which don't drag in connotations of the "war on terror" to make their point. The use of jihad shows that consciously or not Finlayson thinks he is waging some kind of war in which language is a weapon. Unfortunately, in his hands it's a singularly blunt one. His style guide is a case of grammatical correctness gone mad.

- Herald on Sunday

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