FLORENCE GILKESON: Enemy of the Dangling Participle
James J. Kilpatrick is a friend in print only. I trust I correctly placed the adverb.
Placement of the word "only" has always been one of his pet peeves.
We've never met in person. He and I share a love of writing, reading, spelling and grammar. At 88, Kilpatrick has not lost his sharp eye and ear for good writing. I'm afraid mine has dimmed with age and too many years of editing really dreadful writing and editing really good writing by careless writers.
Kilpatrick has given up his weekly column, "The Writer's Art," which was distributed by Universal Press Syndicate and appeared on the op-ed page of The News & Observer of Raleigh. Earlier he discontinued columns on politics and the doings of the U.S. Supreme Court, but he continued the column on writing, perhaps because he had devoted fans all over the country who kept him supplied with juicy examples of bad and/or questionable writing, usually from newspapers.
His longtime editor and friend, Alan McDermott, contributed the final column in which he reported Kilpatrick's retirement because of "the infirmities of age."
Through his column, I kept abreast of the latest styles in writing and cleared up many a cobwebby misunderstanding of grammar and language usage. Kilpatrick loves the English language with all its nuances and peculiarities.
Despite his conservative political leaning, the man has a great sense of humor and keeps up with everything. An aspect of his columns that kept readers perpetually entertained was his ability to add a wry comment about the grammatical malfeasance of a careless writer. The comment might be directed toward sports, politics, fashions, or latest empty-headed celebrity. It made the reader laugh but at the same time conveyed the message that Kilpatrick was no out-of-touch fogey.
Kilpatrick doesn't like dangling participles, poor spelling, unnecessarily long sentences and the use of long words when short ones would serve just as well. Still, he is willing to change his opinion when it makes sense to change our usage.
The old prohibition against the split infinitive was one issue that he tackled, along with that scary thing about whether "none" takes a singular or plural verb.
The split infinitive is a personal bugaboo dating back to a high school English teacher who also taught Latin and Spanish. She drummed it into my head that it was wrong-headed and a heinous crime to boldly split an infinitive (I did that deliberately).
It seems that the prohibition dates to Latin, that ancient language of the Caesars, kept alive today by the medical, law, and science professionals. It is physically impossible to split an infinitive in Latin, where infinitives are all one word. The classic example, borrowing from Shakespeare, is the verb "to be," which in Latin is "esse." When Hamlet mused about whether to be or not to be, he did not split the infinitive, but had he addressed the muse in Latin, avoiding the split would have been even easier.
I still hate split infinitives. However, the split sometimes makes better sense or sounds more melodious than not splitting. In keeping with Kilpatrick teaching, it's best to keep words that modify or explain as close as possible to the words being modified or explained or, in the case of verbs, activated. He would add to that, "what sounds best."
At times, Kilpatrick would mount research on words and usage by poring over venerable reference tomes. With surprising frequency, he turned up differences of opinion among those most highly esteemed scholarly works.
It seems that the English language is an eternally evolving instrument.
McDermott, in the final column, admitted that Kilpatrick was prone to take issue with the Associated Press Stylebook, supposedly the bible of newspaper style. Can you hear me patting my foot as I write this?
Apparently Kilpatrick and I agree that rigid adherence to the Stylebook is no insurance that the unfaithful writer will not be plunged into journalistic hell upon hanging up pencil, notepad, and BlackBerry.
Kilpatrick has a flair for words, something that makes his retirement even more dismaying. He is unafraid to use simple language to convey a message. The lyrical quality of simplicity is all too often missed.
It's sad news that he can no longer produce his column, a work of journalistic art that was as enlightening as it was entertaining.
Florence Gilkeson can be reached at 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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