To offensively split infinitives

I like the Economist and admire its commitment to a clear, plain style of writing. This makes it harder to excuse its perplexing stance on split infinitives. Its style guide says the rule prohibiting them is pointless, but “to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it”.

This is capitulation to an unfounded fetish. Why not just let the fussbudgets be annoyed? The style guide offers sound advice aplenty, but on split infinitives it sacrifices healthy brains to a zombie rule. The reason I bring it up again, having already shown why the rule is bogus and counterproductive, is a tweet from the Economist style guide:¹

*

economist style guide on truth, giving offence, than that typo

There are two things I want to note here.

First, the tweet does not sit easily with the Economist’s position on split infinitives. The paper bans split infinitives because they annoy the people who are annoyed by split infinitives, and it allows this trifling antipathy to outweigh both the facts of usage and the good sense of less captious readers and of the paper itself.

To be fair, the Economist style guide does state the truth about split infinitives: “the ban is pointless”. Yet it continues to uphold the ban. Awkward much?

https://twitter.com/StanCarey/status/495579078460993536

So let’s restate the truth, since it’s more important than the possibility of giving offence.

The split infinitive is fully grammatical, and has been for centuries.² A policy of avoiding it can get you in trouble. The Economist, though it knows better, outlaws a legitimate piece of syntax in order to appease contrarians who take automatic offence at it, and thereby generates confusion in its own copy and implicitly endorses a jaded superstition.

*

The second point is relatively minor and has to do with the typo in the tweet (more important that instead of …than). It’s a remarkably sneaky typo, which I’ve noticed repeatedly in edited publications. Writers, proofreaders, and style guide tweeters: beware this one.

Update:

John McIntyre, at You Don’t Say, finds the Economist‘s entry on split infinitives nonsensical and thinks there is “altogether too much catering to uninformed opinion”. He adds: “This is sheer cowardice, and I doubt that it would require a great deal of courage to surmount it.”

*

¹ If indeed that’s an official account; it’s still unverified. I don’t follow it on Twitter – I can only take so much arbitrary prescriptivism in my feed – but it’s on a list that allows me to keep an eye on it.

² Sometimes it’s best avoided for reasons of style, but that doesn’t affect its grammaticality or my argument.

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16 Responses to To offensively split infinitives

  1. John Cowan says:

    “It matters not whether [such pedants] are told to go quickly or to quickly go.”

  2. roger says:

    The English infinitive being splittable, go ahead and split it when and as convenient. Most other European languages can’t, so in their case it is not an option. Which ones can? Well, the Scandinavians can (not counting the Finns), which prompts the opinion that English has more in common with North Germanic
    than with the other Germanics (as has been said before).

  3. David Morris says:

    I started pondering a) whether and b) to what extent I split my infinitives. My first guess was a) yes, inevitably and b) not very often. I searched through my masters honours dissertation and the first eight pages of the diary of my two and a half years in Korea (it was too long to search the whole thing).
    In the dissertation there were approx 60 infinitives, and only one of them was split: ‘Dawes [a Marine lieutenant] is the only writer to systematically attempt to record verb paradigms for the Sydney language.’ I can’t remember if I deliberately wrote it that way.
    In the diary there were approx 47 infinitives, and none was split.
    Rough observations: there are many infinitives which are difficult to meaningfully split (see what I did there?); there are some ways to gracefully avoid splitting (ummm …); some unsplit infinitives are clumsy and/or ambiguous (Geoffrey Pullum delights in pointing them out on Language Log); many more people will get up in arms about a split infinitive than a clumsily or ambiguously unsplit one.
    My advice to anyone would be: if certain, do; if in doubt, don’t.

  4. Stan says:

    John: “The important thing is that he should go at once.”

    Roger: In one sense it’s not an option in English either, since the infinitive, discounting the particle to, is a single word and can’t be split.

    David: Interesting to hear personal data on this. Looking at the example “the only writer to systematically attempt to record” may be instructive. Systematically to attempt would sound contrived to avoid the split, while to attempt systematically to record would be ambiguous – but only trivially, because I think systematically attempting to record X and attempting to record X systematically imply essentially the same thing. That is, systematically could modify either attempt or record without really changing the sense. Some of the examples that I’ve listed in an older post are structurally similar but more open to real semantic ambiguity.

    My feeling about people getting up in arms about split infinitives is that it would not deter me from using the construction when it comes naturally and works stylistically. If they want to waste energy and raise their blood pressure over something so baseless, off with them.

  5. David Morris says:

    I was going to add some comments very much along those lines, then decided to keep it short.

  6. bevrowe says:

    I wonder if we’re not all in rather a muddle over this.

    As I understand it, the ukase on split infinitives arose from grammatical misunderstandings in the eighteenth century and was then embedded in the language by prescriptivists, who should have known better.

    As a n-E-s I “notice” SIs and feel slightly uncomfortable with them, despite being fully aware of the erroneous background.

    But isn’t that feeling exactly the basis on which descriptivists define what is grammar and was is not?

    So the prescriptivists are wrong because their arguments are based on a fallacy and the descriptivists are wrong because the prescriptivists have actually managed to change the language.

  7. David Morris says:

    I Google Ngrammed (if that’s a verb yet) ‘to systematically attempt’ and ‘systematically to attempt’. The number of results for each is very small and the graphs zigzag up and down, but basically the former has been used more often since about 1970, mostly because use of the latter has plummeted since then.

  8. Stan says:

    Bev: It would be interesting to know what proportion of native-English speakers feel uncomfortable (slightly or otherwise) with split infinitives, and to cross-reference this with age, education, etc. They don’t bother me at all. It is curious, too, how the construction virtually disappeared from writing for a couple of centuries.

    David: ‘if that’s a verb yet’ – it is now! In fact, I think it’s been used that way pretty much since the Viewer appeared, more often without Google as modifier. Ngram predates the Viewer, but I don’t know if it was verbed before it.

  9. Avy says:

    I like splitting infinitives because it gives cadence to the sentence. It helps in the scansion. An infinitive also adheres to scansion, but the delay brought in through splitting gives a style that is slightly eastern or archaic to the ear. IMHO.

    • Stan says:

      Avy: Thanks for your thoughts on this. The question of whether to split depends on several factors, including cadence, and also rhythm, emphasis, personal preference, clarity, and so on. The important thing is that the choice be there, not outlawed for the purpose of mollifying language cranks.

  10. Bloix says:

    “Why not just let the fussbudgets be annoyed?”

    Because the Economist does not publish in order to annoy its readers. They are wrong, but their error is not their problem – it’s the Economist’s problem.

    I am a lawyer, which means I write for judges. I never split an infinitive, never say hopefully, never use singular they, never end a sentence with preposition or begin one with a conjunction. I cannot afford to annoy a fussbudget. The Economist is in the same boat, although it has many readers while I generally have only one.

  11. […] I’ve written two more posts on the topic, both (mercifully) shorter than this one: ‘To infinitely split with sense‘, and ‘To offensively split infinitives‘. […]

  12. Good post. On that / than confusion, I sometimes wonder what is happening to native speaker competence nowadays (if that is the right term). Not just frequent that / than confusion but things like “twice as many than”. And “both this but also” replacing “both this and that”. Not to mention almost obligatory double is as on “The problem is is that”. Yes, usage rules but strange things are happening.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks, Ed. I wouldn’t worry too much about native speaker competence. That/than confusion is just a typo, the result of routine mechanics and inattention. The other phrases you mention, and similar anomalies, are probably no more likely now than they ever were, but rather are more visible. Strange things have always been happening to English.

  13. […] to so many people that you should observe it.” In response, the redoubtable Stan Carey posted a mini-rant. My position is in accord with his: they are fools to be snools of the […]

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