Category Archives: grammar nonrules

Nobody says Graffito or Spaghetto, so What’s Wrong with Leis?

About ten years ago, Hawaii television stations stopped calling the University of Hawaii (Manoa)’s women’s volleyball team the Rainbow Wahines, calling it instead the Rainbow Wahine. The reasoning for this change was that wahines is not a word in Hawaiian, as there is no plural form for nouns. In this way did the Wahines become the Wahine (“Three of the Wahine will be out with injuries this weekend”), keikis become keiki (“Three hundred keiki showed up for Santa’s first appearance at the mall”), leis become lei (“Thousands of lei were donated to the cemetary”), and kupunas become kupuna.

In its effort to be more linguistically correct, however, the local journalistic community has made sentences awkward-sounding while forgetting one very important thing about itself: It’s communicating in ENGLISH. When reporters say that someone gave someone a lei, they are not speaking Hawaiian; they are speaking English. They may be using a Hawaiian word, but the rest of the report is in English, so they are speaking English. To deny the rules of English in order to satisfy the rules of Hawaiian in this case makes no sense, especially since the reporters aren’t bothering to restructure the rest of their sentences to satisfy Hawaiian grammar (you can change the articles in front of the nouns in order to indicate plurals, if I understand correctly).

We have to draw the line somewhere, and the line in current use seems to be not to change the form of the noun but also not to change any of the structure of the English grammar that surrounds it. This is a dumb, awkward, arbitrary rule, and I propose that the line should instead be at reasonably accurate pronunciation and that’s it. Leis would be fair game, as would lanais and wahines. The point is to be as clear as possible without being unreasonably offensive. I suggest that this would do it.

To Boldly Go: Split Infinitives

Depending on when and where you went to school, you might have been told many times that your infinitives should never be split. Without getting into the grammatical mumbo-jumbo, here are some examples of infinitives that have been split:

to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Mom made me promise to never cross the street alone.

(from the Split infinitive article at Wikipedia): She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

There is much contention about whether or not split infinitives should be considered standard or nonstandard, which is good news for the average Joe, because it means you can pretty much do whatever you want. This is one of those great instances where you can go with whatever feels right to you, and it’s probably going to be okay.

A quick note about why the argument exists: When language people set about to lay down some rules that would standardize English, they worked from models they already had. The split infinitive is linguistically impossible in Latin, a common language among learned people, so perhaps the construction in English sounded weird to them. When they set the rules down, they included one shunning the split infinitive strictly based on the fact that since you couldn’t do it in Latin, you shouldn’t do it in English.

Many people, including me, think it is now silly to adhere to rules that don’t make sense now and didn’t really make sense when they were written.

However, one should always be aware of the tension such writing might cause. When one is trying to write clearly, one does not want little things like that to get in the way of a message’s being interpreted correctly. Thus, you might consider re-writing the given examples this way:

to go boldly where no man has gone before.

Mom made me promise never to cross the street alone.

She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

Once again, it is up to you to determine whether or not re-writing in this fashion serves your purpose. Some would argue that in the teddy bear example, “gradually” seems to modify “decided,” meaning her decision was made a little bit at a time. I happen to like the sound of “gradually to get rid of” and “never to cross,” not to mention “boldly to go where no man has gone before,” which I didn’t suggest because it’s not the simplest fix in the first example. There’s a certain style and elegance in such construction, if one doesn’t overdo it!

Summary: It is up to you if you want to ever split your infinitives, as long as you’re making a thoughtful decision about it!