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Split The Infinitive

I know this is the sort of issue that can tear families apart, but in this writer's opinion there's no room in the English language for sentences like "C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel for the first President Bush, said that he was under constant pressure from the president and his staff rapidly to investigate the background of cabinet nominees so that Mr. Bush could fill jobs." I would be encouraging my staff to rapidly wean themselves off adherence to Latin grammatical rules that don't make sense when transposed into English. I mean, what proportion of English speakers even understand that the reason you're supposed to not split infinitives in other languages is that it's not possible because there's nothing to split?

February 5, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Matthew Yglesias. His five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly split infinitives . . .

Posted by: Joel | Feb 5, 2005 1:24:49 PM

Matthew,

Could David Brooks sneer at Howard Dean be in any way a problem for Democrats?

Posted by: Ari | Feb 5, 2005 1:27:15 PM

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/05/opinion/5brooks.html?oref=login&hp

Typical horrid David Brooks, but should we worry?

Posted by: Ari | Feb 5, 2005 1:28:20 PM

Matthew,

I dearly love this blog, but I too have a problem with the small type. Helllp.

Posted by: Ari | Feb 5, 2005 1:29:39 PM

There are several such grammar "rules" that were introduced by renaissance pedants that thought they understood grammar. They didn't.

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Feb 5, 2005 1:29:40 PM

The only rationale for condemning the construction is based on a false analogy with Latin. The thinking is that because the Latin infinitive is a single word, the English infinitive should be treated as if it were a single unit. But English is not Latin, and people split infinitives all the time without giving it a thought. Should we condemn compound infinitives, such as I want to go and have a look, simply because the infinitive have has no to next to it?

Posted by: tp | Feb 5, 2005 1:41:39 PM

Matt,

I'm afraid that you are quite wrong when you say that "the reason you're supposed to not split infinitives in other languages is that it's not possible because there's nothing to split?" Like all other European languages that I'm familiar with, German (the language closest in grammar to English) makes use of constructions in which complex verbs are created by attaching a preposition to a simpler verb. English does this too, in it's way, with constructions like 'to put up with' to mean to tolerate. So in German the verb ansehen meaning to look at or observe, consists of the simple verb sehen, to see, and the preposition an, equivalent to the English on. Note that in German the infinitive of this verb is ansehen. In simple declarative sentences you are required, not permitted, but required to split the an from the sehen (the infinitive does get split), conjugate the sehen and place it in the second position. Given the 'rules' of English gram mer and where we are forbidden to put prepositions, I'll give you three guesses as to where you are required to put the an.

I don't know whether it is worth while to keep our English rules on splitting infinitives and I agree that it generally reads better to me if you don't. But I think you are wrong in saying that other languages don't do this.

Posted by: Michael Robinson | Feb 5, 2005 1:43:07 PM

Ari --
I don't know what browser you're using, but mine has a "View" menu, under which there is a "Text Zoom." Make it as big as you want.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Feb 5, 2005 1:45:14 PM

Michael, the split infinitive 'rule' came from 19th century grammarians who tried to codify English syntax along the lines of Latin. The whole point is that it's a doomed attempt to apply Latin rules to a Germanic language. I don't know of a single decent style-guru since (and including) Fowler who thinks the rule should be observed. It creates ungainly sentences and ambiguities. Incidentally the same is true for prepositions at the end of sentences.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Feb 5, 2005 2:02:13 PM

Amen. Let's abolish the no-ending-a-sentence-with-a-preposition rule too, while we're at it.

Posted by: Jared | Feb 5, 2005 2:03:18 PM

I believe that at least the OED has decided that splitting infinitives is OK. Nonetheless, I would hesitate to split them with anything more intrusive than a single adverb.

And really, Matt, I don't think you ought to be in the habit of critiquing the style of others. Glass houses, you know.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Feb 5, 2005 2:03:44 PM

Uh...instead of "rapidly to investigate", which sounds odd, why not "to investigate rapidly" instead? It doesn't split the infinitive and it preserves the meaning (albeit with a possible change in emphasis).

Posted by: mitch | Feb 5, 2005 2:09:01 PM

To rapidly cut down trees....

Posted by: jerry | Feb 5, 2005 2:35:58 PM

Mitch beat me to it. It is easy to avoid split infinitives. See?

Posted by: SEC Overreach | Feb 5, 2005 2:37:25 PM

bobo is right about the Oxford English Dictionary "legalizing" split infinitives.

And mitch is also right -- "to investigate rapidly" would have worked, and "to investigate the background of cabinet nominees rapidly, so that..." would be better yet, IMO.

So, split infinitive or no, the real enemy is crappy copyediting.

Posted by: Swopa | Feb 5, 2005 3:19:17 PM

Mitch and SEC Overreach:

"to rapidly investigate" is 100% correct English usage. Sure, "to investigate rapidly" is also OK. But there is no a priori reason to choose the latter over the former in order to avoid a split infinitive. Why? Because split infinitives are simply not a problem in English, and there is usually little reason to avoid them. There is only a prohibition against them because idiots a couple hundred years ago thought the dead, stilted Latin they had learned was in some way an "ideal" language, and thus tried to shoehorn English, with a significantly different Germanic heritage and grammar, into Latin styles.

And of course the "rapidly to investigate" phrasing is just incorrect: no one is ever going to say that in English. And the only reason the reporter did is because they were taught that split infinitives are a problem. They aren't.

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Feb 5, 2005 3:22:50 PM

Also, that's a mild case. There are many occasions where it is easy to avoid split inifinitives, but there are also many where it is not. To borrow an example from Wikipedia, anything but "I plan to really enjoy the party" either changes the meaning or sounds horrible. The aim of good style is clarity and mellifluousness, surely. If splitting an infinitive aids either or both of those goals, then do it.

While I agree with most of your post, Timothy, I have to pull you up on one little thing. Latin is not a "stilted" language, by any means. Sure, lots of people have written stilted Latin, but lots of people have written stilted English. Nobody could claim Horace's Odes or Vergil's Aeneid or Ovid's Metamorphoses were stilted. But that doesn't make it an "ideal" language in any way. English is English.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Feb 5, 2005 4:37:36 PM

>Amen. Let's abolish the
>no-ending-a-sentence-with-a-preposition rule too,
>while we're at it.

I think it was Churchill who said of this rule:
"This is the kind of pedantry up with which I will
not put"

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Feb 5, 2005 4:54:28 PM

Michael Robinson | February 5, 2005 01:43 PM

>So in German the verb ansehen meaning to look at or observe, consists of the simple verb sehen, to see, and the preposition an, equivalent to the English on.

Close, but not quite. The German preposition an is equivalent to the English at. Example: "Ich setze mich an dem Tisch" (or "am Tisch") would translate as "I'm sitting myself at the table." If I wanted to say "I'm sitting myself on the table, I would say "Ich setze mich auf dem Tisch." "Auf" is the preposition one would use for "on."

BTW, "auf" is also used with "trennbare Verben" (separable verbs), but it is used a bit differently. "Aufstehen" means "stand up" or "rise" (as in "Aufstehen vom Bett"--get out of bed).

Also, although "Aufstehen" (or your "Ansehen"--which actually means "look at) might be considered infinitive versions of verbs, they are not really used the same way that an infinitive might be in English. If one wanted to say "to look at," except with the six or so modal verbs (mussen, durfen, wollen, etc), one would use something like "anzusehen" ("zu" providing the "to" part of the phrase).

Posted by: raj | Feb 5, 2005 4:56:38 PM

Perhaps it is best simply to quote Mr. Samuel Pickering, who said, “I do not dine with those who split infinitives."

Posted by: The Defeatist | Feb 5, 2005 5:25:29 PM

"In his conduct of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States, and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has prevented, obstructed and impeded the administration of justice."

In many situations, splitting the infinitive creates clearer prose, sure. However, one must recognize that it also comes off as more casual. When the more formal presentation is appropriate, keeping the infinitive intact is prefered.

Splitting the infinitive with the negation, "not" is pretty lame. Seriously, "the reason you're supposed to not split infinitives" sounds much better as "the reason you're not supposed to split infinitives."

Posted by: pickabone | Feb 5, 2005 5:47:20 PM

Um, nobody's denying that. The point is to go with what sounds better, or aids understanding, not what some arbitrary, made up rule says.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Feb 5, 2005 6:40:27 PM

So in German the verb ansehen meaning to look at or observe, consists of the simple verb sehen, to see, and the preposition an, equivalent to the English on.

Close, but not quite. The German preposition an is equivalent to the English at.

Both of you are right! It is a fool's game to try to find one on one correspondences between prepositions in different languages. The German "an" can be used in such a way that we would translate it as either "at" or "on" (although "auf" is the more literal meaning of "on"). For instance, "Frankfurt am Main" would be translated "Frankfurt on the Main," not "Frankfurt at the Main", because in English we use "on" in such situations...

Posted by: John | Feb 5, 2005 8:07:38 PM

Ginger Yellow: that was just a poor word choice on my part. The classical Latin that people could understand in the 1700's was itself artificial dialect of a dead Latin that hadn't been spoken in many centuries. I've nothing against Latin, so I should have picked a better word.

But, even the Latin that scholars know today is an academic and artificial Latin -- it was not the Latin of the Roman street. Rather, it was the Latin that the very few educated elite used in formal, written settings. This actually complicates the tracing of Spanish, French et al. back to their roots. And this is also part of the reason for mistaken English scholars thinking they had to emulate the ancients, and adopt a special, "smart" dialect for their writing.

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Feb 5, 2005 9:44:49 PM

I say, split away, when appropriate. But I'm not so sure about doing away with the no-prepositions-ending-sentences rule. It makes for much clearer and more easily understood english when the preposition is attached to its phrase.
While it is true that, for the humorous usage to which Cownie pointed, it sounds rather awkward, I think that has more to do with the junk english with which it is concerned, rather than the rule in general. "To put up with" is really a rather vulgar idiom and should be abolished.

Posted by: Sweeney | Feb 6, 2005 12:15:30 AM

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