Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Killing the Zombies: Split Infinitives, "Hopefully," and Singular "They"

This summer, I've been looking at zombie rules, false grammar rules taught and followed slavishly with little thought. In June, I set the record straight on how to use between and since. Then last month I knocked down false rules concerning none, and, and however.

Today, I'll kill three final zombies: the split infinitive, hopefully, and singular they. They're style rules — albeit awkward ones — that are lumbering around as grammar rules.

Zombie Rule: Don't Split an Infinitive Verb.

This zombie dictates that you not separate the to from the infinitive form of a verb:

We should study grammar to understand writing better.

Together they are one verb, you see, and they shouldn't be separated. End of discussion.

This zombie seems to have risen up when 18th-century grammarians tried to make English look more like Latin. Since Latin doesn't split its infinitive verbs, neither should English. The trouble is that an infinitive Latin verb is one word.

From this zombie can a related one: Don't split verb phrases. Yet in English we position the modifier next to the thing it modifies:

We should study grammar to better understand writing.

These days a lot of usage experts will tell you that it's OK to split your verb but will then spend several paragraphs trying to convince you to avoid it whenever you can. You can safely ignore them. Or you can ignore them safely. Whichever produces the correct meaning and emphasis for your sentence.

Zombie Rule: Don't Use Hopefully as a Sentence Adverb.

An adverb modifies verbs. But it can also modify adjectives, other adverbs — and sentences.

Truthfully, I didn't study for the exam.

Yet a zombie rule has risen up, disallowing hopefully as a sentence adverb, as in:

Hopefully, I passed the exam anyway.

Maybe the problem is that hopefully as a sentence adverb is just too new for some people. Although hopefully dates back to the 17th century, its first usage as a sentence adverb was in 1932, according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and it didn't really catch on until the 1960s.

English speakers and writers embraced hopefully as a sentence adverb rather quickly (at least as far language changes are concerned), and when that happens, defenders of the language will rise up.

Those defenders declared that hopefully could only mean "in a manner full of hope" and not "it is to be hoped." But it's a funny thing about words and their meanings: if enough people use a word to mean something new, that definition can stick and become legitimate. Which is just what happened to hopefully.

Even the recalcitrant Associated Press Stylebook now accepts hopefully as a sentence adverb (thanks, John McIntyre). Hopefully, you will too.

Zombie Rule: Don't Use They for a Singular Person.

They and its related forms, their and them, have long been used to refer to one person of an unknown gender:

Each student should bring their book to class every day.

But like the other rules in this article, suddenly the usage, often referred as singular they, became popular. Defenders of the language cringed and cried, "This we will not accept! A writer should know his grammar better!"

Why do people have such a hard time with they being used in the singular? They don't have a hard time with you being both singular and plural. They, their, and them have been used regularly for singular nouns as far back as 1523. And with the social pressure not to use he, his, and him for all singular nouns, male or female, singular they is gaining more usage and attention.

As with split infinitives, usage experts are slowly coming around to the idea that singular they is grammatical. Yet they will spill lots of ink to convince you not to use it. A writer should feel free to ignore them and use singular they if they desire and if it works in their sentence.

Interested in learning about more zombie rules? Let me know, and I may revisit the topic in the future.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 12th 2013, 10:02 AM
Comment by: Stuart C. (Brooklyn, NY)
Thank goodness you spoke up Erin. Every writing or English teacher should have the freedom to choose their approach to these irksome issues. AS for me, I'm a convert to your ways of seeing them.
Monday August 12th 2013, 2:05 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Stuart!
Tuesday August 13th 2013, 4:16 PM
Comment by: Ckt Girl (Circuit Girl) (Silicon Valley, CA)
I don't get the "zombie" and/or "zombie rules" references.
Please Erin, explain your use of these words.
Thank you.
~Seeking understanding of your lesson.
Tuesday August 13th 2013, 5:10 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Follow the link to Erin's first piece on zombie rules for a full explanation of the term.
Wednesday August 14th 2013, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Suroor A.
Thanks, Erin! I've been splitting infinitives ever since I watched Star Trek as a child: "To boldly go". I had no idea the rule against it came from Latin.

Still not entirely convinced about hopefully, though.

But always good to break zombie rules!
Wednesday August 14th 2013, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
This is a peephole through a dungeon wall.
Thursday August 15th 2013, 1:26 AM
Comment by: Rhonda H. (WA)
One concept from your article is that language is always changing. When explaining this, my students want THE RULES. They always want to know WHO wrote the rules. I attempt to show them various sources with different usage rules so they can see not everyone agrees. Then I tell them what I believe is correct usage, with support from these sources. Isn't this what we would do in the "real" world of work? If my boss hates semi-colons, I will not use them. If my teacher does not want me to use the word "I" in an essay, then I will not use the word.
It is a strange concept for middle-school students, who want everything to be black and white, to understand that words and usage are constantly changing.

That said... I'm not sure I can get away with "their" for a singular person. I tell students to write their way around any word or usage issue if they are unsure, just as I do.
Friday November 15th 2013, 10:29 PM
Comment by: WordyGerty's girl
"...it's first usage..."??

[Fixed! —Ed.]

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