Split infinitives? Of course you can.

I subscribed to the The Inverse Square Blog by Thomas Levenson some time ago, and I haven’t regretted it since. It’s a great blog on a whole range of matters, with science as a theme running through everything. Thomas is also unabashedly political, which I enjoy reading even though I’m not American, but I think this might possibly have had something to do with the only post of his that I’ve ever strongly disagreed with, which came through my RSS feeds yesterday: Your Fourth Grade Writing Teacher’s Pet Peeve: John McCain Edition.

In the post, Thomas has a kick at McCain’s can:

In the Eschaton-posted ad, McCain asks his advertising audience a simple question. It begins

“Is it OK to unconditionally meet with….”

I can boldly go with the anyone, but leaving aside kitsch nostaligia, splitting the infinitive … that’s just not right. (Sorry for reposting this, but a few months is aeons in blog years, and besides, it’s funny. See about 5:23 into the clip for the reference.)

Really, Senator, would it have killed you to say “Is it OK to meet unconditionally..?” Not only is it correct, it sounds better (which is partly why it is correct; placing the modifier in the middle of the verb usually weakens the action being described — boldly going, as always, excepted).

Even better, how about getting rid of the adverb, always a tricky form (I use ‘em…but I’m a professional)? You could have said something like this:

“Is it OK to meet anti-American foreign leaders without conditions?”

That of course, loses the spin (what in pool you could call the English) — the attempt to tie Senator Obama to unconditional misdeeds of other sorts. Sometimes clarity and simplicity get in the way of attempts to use emotion to deceive. Which is the point, of course. But even if you were unwilling to sacrifice the propaganda opportunity, still there was no need to put asunder what generations of English teachers have tried to join together.

This is one of those odd little issues that really bugs me. My irritation possibly arises out of embarassment, because I used to be one of those people who used my supposedly superior grammatical knowledge to mock those who had dared to split an infinitive in my presence. At least, until I actually began to think about the issue one day and realized that I couldn’t come up with a single good reason why I was right besides vague hand-wavings about traditional, proper English which I had swallowed hook, line and sinker at some point in the past. Uneasy about my status as a defender of the One True English™, I put away my condemnation of those poor slobs who didn’t use English as well as I did and left the matter to stew in the back of my mind.

And then, I read a book which changed my opinion entirely on the subject: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, who is a well-known cognitive and evolutionary psychologist. I’ll quote at length from the book now (p. 386-7), where he discusses the Defenders of English, whom he calls “language mavens”:

[ Referring to the prescriptive rules of grammar and those who purport to enforce them… ] But this raises a question. Someone, somewhere, must be making decisions about “correct English” for the rest of us. Who? There is no English Language Academy, and this is just as well; the purpose of the Académie Française is to amuse journalists from other countries with bitterly argued decisions that the French gaily ignore. Nor were there any Founding Fathers at some English Language Constitutional Conference at the beginning of time. The legislators of “correct English”, in fact, are an informal network of copy-editors, dictionary usage panelists, style manual and handbook writers, English teachers, essayists, columnists, and pundits. Their authority, they claim, comes from their dedication to implementing standards that have served the language well in the past, especially in the prose of its finest writers, and that maximize its clarity, logic, consistency, conciseness, elegance, continuity, precision, stability, integrity, and expressive range. (Some of them go further and say that they are actually safeguarding the ability to *think* clearly and logically. This radical Whorfianism is common among language pundits, not surprisingly; who would settle for being a schoolmarm when one can be an upholder of rationality itself?) William Safire, who writes the weekly column “On Language” for The New York Times Magazine, calls himself a “language maven”, from the Yiddish word meaning expert, and this gives us a convenient label for the entire group.

To whom I say: Maven, schmaven! Kibbitzers and nudniks is more like it. For here are the remarkable facts. Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens make no sense on any level. They are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since. For as long as they have existed, speakers have flouted them, spawning identical plaints about the imminent decline of the language century after century. All the best writers in English at all periods, including Shakespeare and most of the mavens themselves, have been among the flagrant flouters. The rules conform neither to logic nor to tradition, and if they were ever followed they would force writers into fuzzy, clumsy, wordy, ambiguous, incomprehensible prose, in which certain thoughts are not expressible at all. Indeed, most of the “ignorant errors” these rules are supposed to correct display an elegant logic and an acute sensitivity to the grammatical texture of the language, to which the mavens are oblivious.

The scandal of the language mavens began in the eighteenth century. London had become the political and financial center of England, and England had become the center of a powerful empire. The London dialect was suddenly an important world language. Scholars began to criticize it as they would any artistic or civil institution, in part to question the customs, hence authority, of court and aristocracy. Latin was still considered the language of enlightenment and learning (not to mention the language of a comparably vast empire), and it was offered as an ideal of precision and logic to which English should aspire. The period also saw unprecedented social mobility, and anyone who desired education and self improvement and who wanted to distinguish himself as cultivated had to master the best version of English. These trends created a market demand for handbooks and style manuals, which were soon shaped by market forces. Casting English grammar into the mold of Latin grammar made the books useful as a way of helping young students learn Latin. And as the competition became cutthroat, the manuals tried to outdo one another by including greater numbers of increasingly fastidious rules that no refined person could afford to ignore. Most of the hobgoblins of a contemporary prescriptive grammar (don’t split infinitives, don’t end a sentence with a preposition) can be traced back to these eighteenth-century fads.

Of course, forcing modern speakers of English to not — whoops, not to split an infinitive because it isn’t done in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern residents of England to wear laurels and togas. Julius Caesar could not have split an infinitive if he had wanted to. In Latin the infinitive is a single word like facere or dicere, a syntactic atom. English is a different kind of language. It is an “isolating” language, building sentences around many simple words instead of a few complicated ones. The infinitive is composed of two words – a complementizer, *to*, and a verb, like *go*. Words, by definition, are rearrangeable units, and there is no conceivable reason why an adverb should not come between them.

Space — the final frontier . . . These are the voyages of the starship *Enterprise*. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

To *go boldly* where no man has gone before? Beam me up, Scotty, there’s no intelligent life down here. As for outlawing sentences that end with a preposition (impossible in Latin for good reasons having to do with its case-marking system, reasons that are irrelevant in case-poor English) — as Winston Churchill would have said, it is a rule up with which we should not put.

Pinker puts the case so well that I feel little need to elaborate on it. There isn’t a reputable style guide that I’ve seen which would care about split infinitives (though apparently The Columbia Guide to Standard American English suggests not using them because it will contravene the myth of the Bad Split Infinitive, while at the same time acknowledging that there’s no good reason for this to be the case).

On a side note, the rest of the book is fantastic, and I heartily recommend it; the remainder of the chapter on the language mavens is a treat, as Pinker systematically demolishes most of the prescriptive grammar rules that have been foisted on us by well-meaning amateur linguists.

Perhaps one of my favourite examples of the completely nonsensical nature of the “don’t split” rule is this argument I had bookmarked from a great web page on the subject:

Problems Caused by Trying to Avoid the Split Infinitive

Stylistically, the careful placement of another word between “to” and the bare infinitive sometimes avoids ambiguity or ugliness. The old prohibition on split infinitives is particularly surprising when one observes that there are a number of expressions in English that are weakened considerably by avoiding the split infinitive.

R.L. Trask uses this example:

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

Clearly, what is implied here is she took a decision to get rid of her teddy bears, and the disposal would happen over time. ‘Gradually’ splits the infinite “to get.” But if we were to move it, where would it go? Consider the following:

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

This implies that the decision was gradual.

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

This implies that the collecting process was gradual.

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

This is just bad English.

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

This is almost as awkward as its immediate predecessor.

Not only does the original example sound right to a native speaker, it is also the only semantically sound possibility.

And there you have it. Many of us who consider ourselves “educated” have been victims of the language mavens (and possibly our own desire to mark ourselves as educated) at one point or another. There is no good reason to avoid splitting the infinitive, and there never really has been. Having said that, I look forward to reading more of Thomas’s blog and if you’re reading this, I suggest that you head on over there and take a look – it’s good stuff.


One Response to Split infinitives? Of course you can.

  1. sandrar says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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