To infinitely split with sense

Last month I wrote about the unhappy consequences of avoiding split infinitives a silly superstition that leads writers and editors who believe in it to sometimes make a mush of otherwise lucid prose. Calling the rule a fossilised, misbegotten bogeyman of writing style, I catalogued many examples from books where split-infinitive avoidance creates unnecessary ambiguity or awkwardness.

For example: “songbirds lose the ability fully to supplement what was not acquired”, in Terrence Deacon’s Symbolic Species, may mislead: there’s a difference between fully losing an ability to supplement, and losing an ability to fully supplement. In a comment, Jonathon Owen said of another example (“Adequately to judge this girl”) that it “doesn’t even sound like real English anymore; it sounds like Yoda.”

At Lingua Franca today, Geoffrey Pullum criticises a similar example he saw in the Economist: “a bill that would force any NGO receiving cash from abroad publicly to label itself a ‘foreign agent'”. The ambiguity is, in Pullum’s words, unfortunate and unnecessary. Unnecessary from the point of view of grammar, style and common sense, that is, but necessary if the Economist‘s style guide is to be obeyed:

Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.

Lane Greene, who writes insightfully about language for the Economist and elsewhere, dislikes the rule but defends it in the context of journalism: “diverting readers with our style risks distracting them from our reporting and analysis”. I see where he’s coming from, but who’s to say the peevers’ distraction at sanely split infinitives outweighs the distraction of ordinary readers who flinch at the avoidable problems Pullum details?

Jonathon Owen, at Arrant Pedantry, puts the choice thus: “will you please the small but vocal peevers, or the more numerous reasonable people?” Some of the former can surely be persuaded by argument, evidence and good writing; the entrenched, unaccommodating views of the remainder may be better ignored.

Capitulating to the peevers and cranks sacrifices brains to the zombie rule. I’d love to see more style guides dismiss it as the obstructive irrelevance that it is.

[Previously: How awkwardly to avoid split infinitives.]

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12 Responses to To infinitely split with sense

  1. And where would Star Trek (“To boldly go where no man has ever gone before”) be without the split infinitive?

  2. aparnauteur says:

    I used to be that happy soul unmindful of the rule of infinitives, when my friend once corrected me. After that, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I started looking for split infinitives everywhere and it repulsed me, all the while giving me the smug satisfaction of being above all that. But, you are right. It makes no sense to adhere to that rule when working within it destroys the flair and worse, changes the meaning of what is being conveyed.

  3. Stan says:

    brightbluesaturday: It would be in a less impressive rhetorical space. In my previous post on split infinitives I quoted David Crystal, who said the split form is popular “because it is rhythmically more natural to say” (The Fight for English, 2006). Bolder, too, in this case.

    aparnauteur: I’m glad to hear you joined the side of sense over superstition. Your friend no doubt meant well, and had your best interests in mind, but he or she was (and perhaps remains) misinformed on the matter. The rule never had a sound basis, though there are of course occasions when it’s better style to avoid the split.

  4. Feck the peevers, Stan. Can there possibly be much that is more satisfying than to respond to a zombie-rule peever: “You are wrong. Get over yourself.”?

  5. Stan:
    The split infinitive nonsense is the last refuge of linguistic obsessive compulsive disorder, It’s also plainly bogus. Part of the problem is the language we use to discuss it; names count, especially when dealing with an absurd concept. The preposition “to” is not now, and never has been part of the English verb’s infinitive, and logically cannot be split from it. That should be the end of the story, but someone will probably put the lie to what I’m saying by inventing a neologism; how about “to splitinfinitive?” That at least would give everyone a handy term for discussion.

    Please disregard the email address. I have to reset marc1940@verizon.net

  6. John Cowan says:

    “To go boldly” would indeed be flabby, but “Boldly to go” would be fine.

  7. Jonathon says:

    I disagree. “To boldly go” has a nice, punchy iambic meter to it; “boldly to go” feels a little saggy with the two unstressed syllables in the middle.

    Thanks for the link, Stan.

    I think what a lot of people miss is that following a rule effectively defends and reinforces it, no matter the reasons for following it. The reader doesn’t know (and maybe doesn’t even care) whether you’re following the no-split-infinitive rule out of loyalty to the rule or out of deference to the cranks who are loyal to it. Following the rule keeps it alive in Standard English.

    And on a more practical note, even though publications like The Economist aren’t “mainly in the business of informing language usage”, as Mr. Greene says, they are in the business of making money. Time spent fussing over split infinitives is simply time wasted.

  8. Stan says:

    Martyn: Sometimes that can work, but antagonising people over their misapprehensions isn’t always the best approach. They might just dig their heels in.

    Marc: Yes, it is plainly bogus, but misinformation can be amazingly resistant. No one who investigates the matter with an open mind will conclude that the proscription is justified, but many people don’t have the time or inclination to do so. That split infinitive is a misnomer is also worth repeating – I made the point prominently in my earlier post – but it has the advantage of familiarity.

    John: Boldly to go would be unobjectionable, but like Jonathon I much prefer the rhythm of To boldly go: it’s bolder and more satisfying.

    Jonathon: Yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head there. It’s a stupid, counterproductive rule, and following it systematically – for whatever reason – serves to perpetuate it and to appease another generation of peevers instead of encouraging them to face the facts.

  9. The Ridger says:

    “Boldly to go where no man has gone before” makes the “going where no man has gone before” bold; the original makes the going itself bold. There’s a subtle difference – as is often the case with adverbial placement. Between the aux and the verb is a natural place for adverbs (he has always done so, he is quickly running), and the ‘to’ is just another aux, right?

  10. Stan says:

    “Boldly to go where no man has gone before” makes the “going where no man has gone before” bold; the original makes the going itself bold.

    Not to me, Karen. I think intonation or a pause or lack thereof, rather than adverb placement, might suggest one or the other reading. But written, without a comma, either it’s ambiguous or we rely on how we remember and interpreted the line as spoken on TV.

    Another problem with Boldly to go is that it loses the parallelism of the full line: Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

  11. Some of your examples ( “songbirds lose the ability fully to supplement what was not acquired”) are using the ‘Look, I’m not splitting an infinitive’ technique, which usually comes across and clumsy or pretentious, as well as often losing clarity. In my opinion this is generally the least good option. Splitting the infinitive or putting the adverb after the verb it modifies is usually better in terms of clarity and style.

    Songbirds lose the ability to supplement fully what was not acquired. To judge this girl adequately….

  12. Stan says:

    Cheryl: Yes, I agree that the other arrangements you mention are clearer and less clumsy. In most cases, though, I don’t think there was anything showy about it: the writer or editor responsible was just submitting to a rule they didn’t think should be broken.

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