Arrant Pedantry

By

To Boldly Split Infinitives

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek, so I thought it was a good opportunity to talk about split infinitives. (So did Merriam-Webster, which beat me to the punch.) If you’re unfamiliar with split infinitives or have thankfully managed to forget what they are since your high school days, it’s when you put some sort of modifier between the to and the infinitive verb itself—that is, a verb that is not inflected for tense, like be or go—and for many years it was considered verboten.

Kirk’s opening monologue on the show famously featured the split infinitive “to boldly go”, and it’s hard to imagine the phrase working so well without it. “To go boldly” and “boldly to go” both sound terribly clunky, partly because they ruin the rhythm of the phrase. “To BOLDly GO” is a nice iambic bimeter, meaning that it has two metrical feet, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable—duh-DUN duh-DUN. “BOLDly to GO” is a trochee followed by an iamb, meaning that we have a stressed syllable, two unstressed syllables, and then another stressed syllable—DUN-duh duh-DUN. “To GO BOLDly” is the reverse, an iamb followed by a trochee, leading to a stress clash in the middle where the two stresses butt up against each other and then ending on a weaker unstressed syllable. Blech.

But the root of the alleged problem with split infinitives concerns not meter but syntax. The question is where it’s syntactically permissible to put a modifier in a to-infinitive phrase. Normally, an adverb would go just in front of the verb it modifies, as in She boldly goes or He will boldly go. Things were a little different when the verb was an infinitive form preceded by to. In this case the adverb often went in front of the to, not in front of the verb itself.

As Merriam-Webster’s post notes, split infinitives date back at least to the fourteenth century, though they were not as common back then and were often used in different ways than they are today. But they mostly fell out of use in the sixteenth century and then roared back to life in the eighteenth century, only to be condemned by usage commentators in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Incidentally, this illustrates a common pattern of prescriptivist complaints: a new usage arises, or perhaps it has existed for literally millennia, it goes unnoticed for decades or even centuries, someone finally notices it and decides they don’t like it (often because they don’t understand it), and suddenly everyone starts decrying this terrible new thing that’s ruining English.)

It’s not particularly clear, though, why people thought that this particular thing was ruining English. The older boldly to go was replaced by the resurgent to boldly go. It’s often claimed that people objected to split infinitives on the basis of analogy with Latin (Merriam-Webster’s post repeats this claim). In Latin, an infinitive is a single word, like ire, and it can’t be split. Ergo, since you can’t split infinitives in Latin, you shouldn’t be able to split them in English either. The problem with this theory is that there’s no evidence to support it. Here’s the earliest recorded criticism of the split infinitive, according to Wikipedia:

The practice of separating the prefix of the infinitive mode from the verb, by the intervention of an adverb, is not unfrequent among uneducated persons. . . . I am not conscious, that any rule has been heretofore given in relation to this point. . . . The practice, however, of not separating the particle from its verb, is so general and uniform among good authors, and the exceptions are so rare, that the rule which I am about to propose will, I believe, prove to be as accurate as most rules, and may be found beneficial to inexperienced writers. It is this :—The particle, TO, which comes before the verb in the infinitive mode, must not be separated from it by the intervention of an adverb or any other word or phrase; but the adverb should immediately precede the particle, or immediately follow the verb.

No mention of Latin or of the supposed unsplittability of infinitives. In fact, the only real argument is that uneducated people split infinitives, while good authors didn’t. Some modern usage commentators have used this purported Latin origin of the rule as the basis of a straw-man argument: Latin couldn’t split infinitives, but English isn’t Latin, so the rule isn’t valid. Unfortunately, Merriam-Webster’s post does the same thing:

The rule against splitting the infinitive comes, as do many of our more irrational rules, from a desire to more rigidly adhere (or, if you prefer, “to adhere more rigidly”) to the structure of Latin. As in Old English, Latin infinitives are written as single words: there are no split infinitives, because a single word is difficult to split. Some linguistic commenters have pointed out that English isn’t splitting its infinitives, since the word to is not actually a part of the infinitive, but merely an appurtenance of it.

The problem with this argument (aside from the fact that the rule wasn’t based on Latin) is that modern English infinitives—not just Old English infinitives—are only one word too and can’t be split either. The infinitive in to boldly go is just go, and go certainly can’t be split. So this line of argument misses the point: the question isn’t whether the infinitive verb, which is a single word, can be split in half, but whether an adverb can be placed between to and the verb. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, the term split infinitive is a misnomer, since it’s not really the infinitive but the construction containing an infinitive that’s being split.

But in recent years I’ve seen some people take this terminological argument even further, saying that split infinitives don’t even exist because English infinitives can’t be split. I think this is silly. Of course they exist. It used to be that people would say boldly to go; then they started saying to boldly go instead. It doesn’t matter what you call the phenomenon of moving the adverb so that it’s snug up against the verb—it’s still a phenomenon. As Arnold Zwicky likes to say, “Labels are not definitions.” Just because the name doesn’t accurately describe the phenomenon doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We could call this phenomenon Steve, and it wouldn’t change what it is.

At this point, the most noteworthy thing about the split infinitive is that there are still some people who think there’s something wrong with it. The original objection was that it was wrong because uneducated people used it and good writers didn’t, but that hasn’t been true in decades. Most usage commentators have long since given up their objections to it, and some even point out that avoiding a split infinitive can cause awkwardness or even ambiguity. In his book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker gives the example The board voted immediately to approve the casino. Which word does immediately modify—voted or approve?

But this hasn’t stopped The Economist from maintaining its opposition to split infinitives. Its style guide says, “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.”

I call BS on this. Most usage commentators have moved on, and I suspect that most laypeople either don’t know or don’t care what a split infinitive is. I don’t think I know a single copy editor who’s bothered by them. If you’ve been worrying about splitting infinitives since your high school English teacher beat the fear of them into you, it’s time to let it go. If they’re good enough for Star Trek, they’re good enough for you too.

But just for fun, let’s do a little poll:

Do you find split infinitives annoying?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

By

Book Review: The Sense of Style

Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher, Viking.

The Sense of StyleI was intrigued when I first heard that Steven Pinker, the linguist and cognitive scientist, was writing a book on style. I’ve really enjoyed some of his other books, such as The Stuff of Thought, but wasn’t this the guy who had dedicated an entire chapter of The Language Instinct to bashing prescriptivists, calling them a bunch of “kibbitzers and nudniks” who peddle “bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago”? But even though it can be satisfying to bash nonsensical grammar rules, I’ve also long felt that linguists could offer some valuable insight into the field of writing. I was hopeful that Pinker would have some interesting things to say about writing, and he didn’t disappoint me.

I should be clear, though, that this is not your ordinary book on writing advice. It isn’t a quick reference book full of rules and examples of what to do and what not to do (for which I recommend Joseph Williams’s excellent Style). It’s something deeper and more substantial than that—it’s a thorough examination of what makes good writing good and why writing well is so hard.

Pinker starts by reverse-engineering some of his favorite passages of prose, taking them apart piece by piece to see what makes them tick. Though it’s an interesting exercise, it gets a little tedious at times as he picks passages apart. However, his point is valuable: good writing can only come from good reading, which means not only reading a lot but engaging with what you read.

He then explores classic style, which he calls “an antidote for academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, officialese, and other kinds of stuffy prose.” Classic style starts with the assumption that the writer has seen something that they want to show to the reader, so the writer engages in a conversation with the reader to help direct their gaze. It’s not suitable for every kind of writing—for example, a user manual needs just a straightforward list of instructions, not a dialogue—but it works well for academic writing and other kinds of writing in which an author explains a new idea to the reader.

Then Pinker tackles perhaps the most difficult challenge in writing—overcoming the curse of knowledge. The cause of much bad writing, he says, is that the author is so close to the subject that they don’t know how to explain it to someone who doesn’t already know what the author knows. They forget how they came by their knowledge and thus unthinkingly skip key pieces of explanation or use jargon that is obscure or opaque to outsiders. And to make things worse, even being aware of the curse of knowledge isn’t enough to ensure that you’ll write more clearly; that is, you can’t simply tell someone, “Keep the reader in mind!” and expect them to do so. The best solution, Pinker says, is to have test readers or editors who can tell you where something doesn’t make sense and needs to be revised.

The next chapters provide a crash course on syntax and a guide to creating greater textual coherence, and though they occasionally get bogged down in technical details, they’re full of good advice. For example, Pinker uses syntax tree diagrams to illustrate both the cause of and solution to problems like misplaced modifiers. Tree diagrams are much more intuitive than other diagramming methods like Reed-kellog, so you don’t need to be an expert in linguistics to see the differences between two example sentences. And though the guide to syntax is helpful, the chapter on coherence is even better. Pinker explains why seemingly well-written text is sometimes so hard to understand: because even though the sentences appear to hang together just fine, the ideas don’t. The solution is to keep consistent thematic strings throughout a piece, tying ideas together and making the connections between them clear.

The last and by far the longest chapter—it occupies over a third of the book—is essentially a miniature grammar and usage guide prefaced by a primer on the supposed clash between prescriptivism and descriptivism. It’s simultaneously the most interesting and most disappointing chapter in the book. Though it starts rather admirably by explaining the linguistics behind particular usage issues (something I try to do on this blog), it ends with Pinker indulging in some peevery himself. Ironically, some of the usage rules he endorses are no more valid than the ones he debunks, and he gives little justification for his preference, often simply stating that one form is classier. At least it’s clear, though, that these are his personal preferences and not universal laws. The bulk of the chapter, though, is a lucid guide to some common grammar and usage issues. (And yes, he does get in a little prescriptivist bashing.)

Despite some occasional missteps, The Sense of Style is full of valuable advice and is a welcome addition to the genre of writing guides.

%d bloggers like this: