They couldn’t help themselves

February 7, 2014 • 12:08 pm

While reading the famous 840-page anti-accommodationist book A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) by Andrew Dickson White (the first president of Cornell University and a promoter of Christianity who simply hated its incursion into science), I came across the following emendation by a previous reader:


Now I don’t even know if that correction is grammatically necessary, but I had to smile at the anonymous reader who got annoyed and took the trouble to add the proofreader’s transposition symbol.

65 thoughts on “They couldn’t help themselves

  1. My boss corrects that in my briefs (I’m a lawyer) all the time. I have no idea what you call this particular piece of grammar punctiliousness, but it seems like the sentences are comprehensible either way. What’s the deal? Is this something Strunk & White insisted on 50 years ago? Seems like a pointless change to me.

    1. It bugs me, too, but then I look for it, so the bugging is self-inflicted. If you read the text aloud, there is more of a rhythm when it’s done properly.

    2. The issue is the parallel status of taught and advocated, and therefore their equal relationship to the word be. I agree with the amateur editor, but I don’t consider it to be a serious error and I certainly wouldn’t mark up a book I did not own.

      1. Agreed.

        There’s also the parallelism of “neither” and “nor”, so that be should control both.
        It’s a matter of flow and taste.
        Elegance in writing still has a meaning, but the criteria are personal.

        I am sure, having studied Robert Graves’s “The Reader Over Your Shoulder” (1943)pretty carefully as soon as it struck me that writing was not just a skill, but also an art, that Graves would have agreed.

        I also noted that many of Robert Graves’s ideas found their way into a video presentation of Steven Pinker about a book that he is projecting to write on Style for science writers, and I felt surprised that he never mentioned Graves as a source of those ideas (the “classical style”). Perhaps he will in the book.
        Perhaps he felt that his audience (was it MIT?) might have never heard of Robert Graves, a formidable classicist of the old school, formed by Oxford, no less. (“Good Bye to All That; the “Greek Myths”; I, Claudius; etc.)

        But there’s a tendency in scholarship to use arguments and ideas without mentioning the name of the sources. I thought that Pinker would be above that.

    3. It’s interesting that you bring up Strunk and White. E.B. White (that’s Elwyn Brooks) was known to his friends as “Andy”. He picked up that nickname because he enrolled at Cornell (where his English professor was Will Strunk), and young men with the White surname were teasingly called “Andy” after the famous first president of Cornell, Andrew Dickson White, whose book is the entire basis of the original post, thus closing the circle. Strunk and White would object to that last run-on sentence. The point is that the two Whites are connected via nomenclature.

      1. Neat link. Steve Gould could have turned that into a chapter-length essay, but you are obviously not paid by the word.

  2. The verb form on either side of the “or” should be the same for symmetry. It should be “taught nor advocated” or “be taught or be advocated”.

      1. I’m with you. The only thing in conversation that is almost unbearable is the word “heighth”, with that “h” appended. Very common in the south and I want to hug someone when he pronounces it correctly.

    1. Yes.

      He commented neither frivolously nor erroneously. -vs- He neither commented frivolously nor posted erroneously.

    2. OK OK but. If it sounds OK, then you’re imputing the second “be”. If it doesn’t, your short-term memory is failing.

        1. Yeah, I almost replied to my own post saying I used or’s when I should have used nor’s, but then I wasn’t sure of the proper way to pluralize the words, so I didn’t post that. Googling didn’t provide me with an immediate, authoritative answer.

        1. That is an atavistic comma. I didn’t notice it until I read your comment! Because I’m English I intend all Americans to read my comments as if they are the words of Captain Picard. Or Peter Cook because we both grew up in the same town.

          1. If I ever see a comment from you that includes the word “marriage”, I will now know how to imagine it being pronounced. 😉

            For some reason, my default inner accent is an English accent, very much like Richard Dawkins’. I’m American.

              1. Different style guides differ on this one, but I’m solidly in the camp of the universality of “‘s.” It removes all ambiguity, and there’s no downside.



              2. Having a son named Niels made me have to know these things; IIANM, most such guides(at least ~25 years ago–plenty of time for preferences to have changed, I suppose) preferred the final ‘s.’

                It’s one of those things that at first strikes people as wrong & weird (probably because their early grammar teachers never covered this subset of the roolz) but that one can easily become accustomed to. Still, there’s always that niggling thought in the back of one’s head that plenty of readers are going to consider it wrong…It’s like knowing the correct way to pronounce forte (in its non-musical sense) but also knowing you’ll be thought wrong to do so.

              3. I learned it from always writing about things Augustus had when I was in school. 🙂

              4. Now, now. Haven’t you learned anything from reading all the anti-prescriptivist arguments on the grammar and usage threads here?

                Therefore, I refute your argument thus:

                dfhjys fguot’ snbxysty. wwwwytbn vvvdyop ?

              5. Then you would love my favorite:
                “Richard Strauss’s Salome.”
                4 “s” in a row. A thing of pure beauty.
                “Jesus’s” is also a fun little character roaming around in a lot of books about the Origins of Christianity, looking behind to make sure he still has his cute tail.

                People are so afraid of ” ‘s ” because they’re not sure whether to use it or not. The problem is with high school teachers who don’t know either.

                Still the same hesitant people will create one, simply by slavish imitation of neighbors, in the case of another possessive “It’s use derives from…”.
                Again, we could suspect the limited knowledge of high school teachers. Some are brave enough to write papers, and you should just read them.

                It’s so much easier to say, “anything goes”, “write as you feel, as long as you are understood.” Coherence, elegance, beauty, they all go out the window.

                Remember, F. Scott Fitzgerald was said to never produce text that was grammatically readable. Everything had to be polished and re-written by editors of his articles or books. But what happens if you’re not Fitzgerald?

        2. No, Captain Kirk uses periods. It would’ve looked like this:

          I’m. Not sure. If it was intentional. But you. Mispelled. ‘Proofreader’s’. Made. Me smile too.

  3. Full text of the book is available online:

    “Andrew Dickson White … and a promoter of Christianity who simply hated its incursion into science

    True. From the introduction:

    “My hope is to aid–even if it be but a little–in the gradual and healthful
    dissolving away of this mass of unreason, that the stream of “religion pure and
    undefiled” may flow on broad and clear, a blessing to humanity.”

    Once you finish the book and see how much he was willing to accept of science, even that the Bible is a book of fables, you may wonder as I did; given a scientific worldview, what did he think was left of religion?

  4. I prefer the way it is typed, not the pencil-corrected version. No amount of language rules forced upon me will make me criticize either way. There is too much of me that is an amateur poet to think one is formally better than the other.

    1. What if I were to tell you it wasn’t a rule but a guideline? I’m Morpheus to you right now, aren’t I?

  5. Many smiles this thread brings. And many old favorites: “The kind of pedantry up with which I will not put.” Or the wonderful child’s question: “Why did you bring that book I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?” Five prepositions in a row: take that!

  6. I think it’s probably due to analogy with a split infinitive – ‘to neither be’.

    Of course, I manage to gratuitously split infinitives all the time. 😉

  7. There’s nothing wrong with split infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition, but in constructions like this with neither/nor or either/or the words or phrases should be grammatically parallel. In this example the “be” should be part of both phrases or of neither phrase. If I were reading this I would notice the sloppiness but not correct it in somebody else’s book–that is a bit OCD.

  8. A Pedant Writes…

    The ‘rule’ (it’s English, a hybrid language that got rid of most rules centuries ago, only to have new ones made up by academics in the 17th and 18th centuries) is that ‘neither’ or ‘either’ should be followed by the same constructions. Thus “neither taught nor advocated” or “neither be taught nor be advocated”.

    What this might indicate is that at least one person was bored by the philosophy being espoused.

  9. I seem to remember that Chief Justice Roberts screwed up Obama’s first oath of office because of his dislike of interposing other words between the parts of verbs (like split infinitives) — as in this case with the modal ‘must’ and the verb ‘be’. And in general he’s right. Of course, you can split infinitives, and sometimes you have to in order to make your meaning clear. But, on the whole, English is more mellifluous if you don’t split your verbs. The phrase “must be neither taught nor advocated” sounds better than “must neither be taught nor advocated,” unless, of course, the intention is to stress the word ‘neither.’ Cheers for someone who thinks that there are conventions in written English that ought, on the whole, to be observed, even if they are not rules. Break any rules you please, if it sounds better, but not if it turns out uglier than it need be.

  10. An examination of the concordance of the Federalist Papers for the word “neither” shows six “neither be”s and only three “be neithers”.

    The King James Bible translates 2 Peter 1:8 as “For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall NEITHER BE barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Darby Bible goes for BE NEITHER.

    German physicist Robert Mayer in 1841 said “Energy can BE NEITHER created nor destroyed” in the first classic statement of conservation of energy, but Heimholz in restating the law in 1863 went for BE NEITHER. (Source: Human Chemistry by Libb Thims)

    Neither Bible translators nor physicists seem to have a strict rule on this. 🙂

    1. To be neither, or to neither be, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to prepend the verb or suffer the slings and arrows of negation first. Or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by editing, revise the text?

  11. To boldly go.
    To go boldly.
    Boldly to go.

    When I was taught English my teacher told me to ignore the “rule” about split infinatives if it interrupted flow.

    No problema in Spanish though.

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