Monday, October 27, 2008

An adventure in forgetting

My week's vacation ended, I'm once again able, after a gap of a few lazy days, to conveniently return to posting all of my idle thoughts about which you all so fervently do not care.

I firmly believe in the propriety of 'splitting the infinitive.' I believe it is the duty of every right-thinking writer of English --prose or poems, journalism or drama-- to proudly split any infinitive they choose. And to use 'they' with singular referents, as you already know. I put 'split the infinitive' in "scare quotes" (though my scare quotes are, of course, in truth pretentious 'inverted commas') because the act of placing words between the infinitive particle and the uninflected form of the verb, in fact, does not 'split' the infinitive: it's two words to begin with. What possible warrant could there be for the claim that in this situation, uniquely, two quite separate words are not to ever be separated by modifiers?

There is much that must be shown if this case is to deserve more than out-of-hand dismissal, especially given that the rules of ordinary speech in no way prevent, neither by etiquette nor the obviously more real demands of making sense, any speaker at all to blithely, indiscriminately, even casually, put anything they like between the particle and its verb.

Oh my. I had no intention, in beginning this post, to divert along the screeding path of grammatical rabble-rousing. Do forgive me. And don't my sentences become insufferable when I write in a rush? I'll have to take up sentence-final prepositions another day, because it is something I both make use of and have strong feelings about.

But I brought you here today to share a story of my forgetting a word, then finding a scrap of paper where I had used that word, then learning the word anew, in a different context, with an altogether different meaning: Atop a stack of notes and scraps I saw a sketch of a drum beat above which an arrow pointed to a brief rest, an eighth of note perhaps, and at the blunt end of the arrow, the notation 'anacrusis'; having no memory of writing the word, or any trace of its meaning, I set the page aside and thought no more of it --that is, until I ran across 'anacrusis' again that same day (we have discussed how this reliable coincidence of words new-learned both is and is not a property of the universe, have we not?) in Mary Oliver's Rules for the Dance, a little, worthy book about metrical poetry, where the word means the addition of a syllable extraneous to the the meter of the line, not belonging to any of its feet, as in this from Twelfth Night: "O mistress mine where are you roaming?" in which the supernumerary to the trochaic four-footer is that aitchless 'O.'

O, I'm so proud of that last sentence! Can you tell I've been reading William H. Gass? --well, it'd be pretty surprising if you could, given both his relative fame these days and the paucity of evidence --anyway, he writes long sentences and I want to be like him. I have a sentence of his in my copy book that I'll share with you shortly.

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