Modesty Blaise, split infinitives and style guides

 

It’s not every day you find a joke about split infinitives in the opening sentences of a novel. But Peter O’Donnell provided just that when he transformed Modesty Blaise (think Emma Peel combined with Lara Croft) from a cartoon character into a full-flesh master criminal turned special agent extraordinaire in the opening book of a series.

‘I would suppose, sir,’ he said cautiously, ‘that Modesty Blaise might be a person awfully difficult for us – er – actually to get.’ He blinked towards the big, grey-haired man who stood by the window, looking down at the night traffic hurrying along Whitehall.

‘For a moment,’ Tarrant said, turning from the window, ‘I hoped you might split that infinitive, Fraser.’ ‘I’m sorry, Sir Gerald.’ Fraser registered contrition. ‘Another time, perhaps.’

Well, it was 1965, so I suppose your average pulp fiction reader would have got the joke, having learned grammar at school. Unlike those of us who fronted up at school after 1965, by which time rote teaching of grammar had fallen out of favour with the result that generations of students have graduated without the faintest idea what an infinitive is, split or otherwise, let alone a dangling participle or the subjunctive mood. Myself included.

My saving grace was picking up a style guide when I got into journalism. Style guides are created by publishers to set writers straight on matters of grammar and syntax and ensure they observe common spellings, styles, use of numerals and names. The idea is that consistency makes life easier for the reader and creates a sense of trust – if the publication gets the little details right, the big details must surely be right too.

There was a time when you had to work for a news organisation to get your hands on a style guide. Then some organisations started publicly publishing theirs as hardcover books. The first one I read cover to cover was a battered, borrowed Economist Style Guide. I say borrowed, but I just found it in a box of books – with Modesty Blaise and a pile of other 50s and 60s paperbacks accumulated somewhere along the way – so I guess it was more of a gift, given that I can’t now remember who gave it to me. Oops.

Next came the perennial The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers and the elegant The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Both of which remain useful reads, the latter proving a particularly long-standing companion thanks to gems like this:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph should contain no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell. – The Elements of Style, Strunk & White

Nowadays many newsrooms publish their style guides online for anyone to use, and they can be very useful indeed. So here’s a couple to be getting on with: The Economist, The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Telegraph. I’d be glad to hear from you if you have links to any others.

As for the stylish Modesty Blaise – smart, elegant, discerning, rich, athletic, deadly – it must surely be time for a comeback (if only to give that Twittering Chuck Norris a run for his money).

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