John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The battle rejoined

I understand that there was some kind of football extravaganza over the weekend, which may have distracted some of you from the back-and-forth in Facebook over that exploded doctrine, the split infinitive.

Mignon Fogarty drew fire on her Grammar Girl page on Facebook for pointing out, yet again, that there is no legitimate foundation for the bogus rule against splitting infinitives, A couple of those comments:

A good writer/speaker does not use them. Man, no wonder my students find professional writing so hard!

I respectfully disagree with Grammar Girl on the issue of split infinitives. There is indeed a 'rule' or 'convention' which 'prohibits' them. It is certainly no myth.

You can see more of the same in her 2006 post on the same subject at her Web site, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing:

I have been studying (American) English since 1956, Latin since 1965, and Spanish since 1969.

I agree with those who have said that infinitives should never be split. Sorry, Grammar Girl, but your laxness on this matter is surprising and disappointing. Please change your mind, thus correcting yourself. [Contrary to what our modern world mistakenly thinks, there really are "right" and "wrong" actions in life.]


And this:

Most grammar texts still consider split infinitives incorrect. The English language has been butchered enough without resorting to putting everything into the vernacular. You might as well teach Ebonics or Sponics or whatever.

Either stick to the rules or shut up is my answer.


Some constructions that split infinitives can indeed be ungainly, but that does not mean that all such constructions are wrong. Many writers come up with maladroit metaphors, but no one concludes that all metaphors should therefore be banned. (Except maybe for Plato, who wants to have no truck with poetry in his nasty little Republic.)

What is on display in the comments — and it is profoundly discouraging that some appear to come from teachers — is an uninformed and dogmatic attitude toward language: “I don’t care about the history of the language or what linguists say or even what informed prescriptivists say. I was taught a rule, and that is the law, and anyone who disagrees with me is a barbarian who is tearing down all the standards of civilization. Shut up.”

It is rather the attachment to the split-infinitive superstition that stands in opposition to learning.

Écrasez l’infâme.

30 comments:

  1. I agree that the rule exists for a reason...good grammar. Writers, in particular, function within the realm of language, and should be the last to abandon the canons of grammar. What I find to be difficult is the use of quotations which violate the rule. Many times I choose to summarize the quote rather than copy it, not wanting to appear to have embraced the violation.

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  2. This is... disturbing. In the same way that polls find that an overwhelming number of Americans believe in angels or think that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. (I wish I had cites for those, but I don't, though I know I've seen the polls.)

    This is also another argument for English teachers being required to take linguistics classes, and for us linguists to really step up our PR campaign.

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  3. The point being made is that the supposed rule against the split infinitive is a bogus canon.

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  4. I think that the split infinitive helps in adding emphasis to either a written or spoken phrase... and I think it's good sometimes to "dress" the bare infinitive in "stress". Why not? If it's becoming more and more popular and if we want a language to be alive, then let people manage the rules and allow the dogma to be updated.

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  5. "Split 'em if you got 'em" is my motto, but you'd better know that's what you're doing. The goal is clear and effective communication, and if splitting an infinitive allows you to do that (rather than a more awkward "with which" style construction), then go for it.

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  6. I understand the current thinking, but do not agree. The "two word infinitive" rationale is logical, but I'm not sure it is the final word. My point was...and remains...that good writers should embrace patterns of speech which enhance communication without resorting to "acceptable new practices" simply because they are easier to use or more generally accepted by the public. My position is not meant to be infallible, however. Just as I learned to embrace the computer and put away the yellow pad, I may be able to learn to adapt to conventional wisdom if necessary. In the meantime I will continue to avoid the use of split infinitives in my own writing.

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  7. @Jed, the point is that the split infinitive has been an "acceptable new practice" since English was new. That's why it's so easy to find examples in the finest writing throughout the history of the languages -- examples which, it seems you admit, you go out of your way to avoid citing, apparently because the likes of Dickens and Austen were flagrantly flouting the rules in their trendy writing.

    What's a "new practice" is this bogus rule that it should not be used. It only in the 18th century that self-styled English grammarians drew up what they thought were rules, which they based not on English as it had been used (cf. Johnson), but based on Latin. That's as absurd an approach as if you were to tell Spanish speakers that they should not use the double negative because it was "illogical" in English (an argument floated by the same self-appointed authorities, and likewise specious), something that would surprise several hundred million Spanish speakers who use it every day.

    If you do not base a grammar based on how people actually use the language, then what DO you base it on? There is no revealed truth about language; there is Constitution of the grammar of English that lays out its bedrock principles; and any appeal to logic ultimately fails to account for everything that even the hardest-core prescriptivist would have to acknowledge as correct.

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  8. He is the friend I most depend upon.
    They asked me where the library was at.

    Sooooo, we can use both with impunity because, well, the rules just don't matter, right?

    Funny thing about them descriptivizers (who probably never taught a word of grammar a day in their lives): they run back to the rules only when it's convenient for them; otherwise, it "how dare you proscribe my tongue"!

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  9. Agree with mike--it's not as though splitting infinitives is a trendy new fad. Garner's Modern American Usage has the most sensible advice.

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  10. I try not to split infinitives when I'm writing for an audience that will get upset if I do. But that's as far as I go. Careful writers split them all the time, and not only for stylistic reasons. Trying to enforce a "rule" prohibiting that is misguided, IMO.

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  11. Right now, after reading the last comments, I'm thinking that Monet, Manet and the rest of my beloved impressionists would never have succeeded in sharing their amazing works of art, as they were not following the stated rules for art (!!!) Please, let's be modern, let creativity go.

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  12. @Yancy: I don't know what you're getting at. I'm starting to feel put upon. Is that the message you're trying to get across?

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  13. "They asked me where the library was at" is a non-standard, colloquial construction.

    "He is the friend I most depend on" is perfectly acceptable English.

    Is "Where are you from?" a sentence you would object to? Would you object to the question that embodies the example?

    If you have trouble distinguishing between colloquial spoken English and standard written English, maybe you should take a course.

    Descriptivists do not say that there are no rules, only that there are fewer than misguided teachers and editors have imagined.

    Denunciation of the superstition -- and that is the word he used -- that a preposition must not come at the end of a sentence appears in Henry Fowler's Modern English Usage of 1926. So says the granddaddy of prescriptivists.

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  14. I think the most salient point in these types of arguments is how many people hold fast to "rules" and try to insist that language is a static thing.

    The more I learn about English and its many uses, the more I embrace how versatile and ever-changing it is.

    Not only are split infinitives based on a false comparison, they are a part of the spoken language -- like it or lump it. I grow similarly weary of folks who are angered by the noun-to-verb transitions (i.e., "I Googled it") so common in English. I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned the apocryphal Churchill quote about ending sentences with preposition, since it makes a similar point about the silliness of hard-core sticklers.

    I may cringe at the wrong form of "it's," but I also love how ever-changing language is. English is a versatile language, capable of absorbing new and foreign words (or creating new uses for current words), and that should be celebrated.

    I suggest any grammar purists read Melvyn Bragg's excellent "The Adventure of English," which does a much better job of portraying the language as a living, breathing, changing entity than I ever could (and no, I have no financial incentive for mentioning the book).

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  15. I wish the people who insist that grammar authorities and textbooks consider split infinitives incorrect would actually produce one of these authorities or texts. I have about four linear feet of usage books at home and haven't yet seen one that endorses this view. Where are people getting their information on this?

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  16. Captain Kirk split an infinitive when he said that the Enterprise's five-year mission was "to boldly go where no man has gone before." And that's good enough for me.

    Of course today, we'd snipe him for saying "man," because half the Enterprise crew were women [notice I made "half" plural. :)]. But those words were written just as women's lib was starting out. We don't do such things today. When "The next Generation" came out, they changed it to the politically correct "where no one has gone before..."

    So yes, things do change...

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  17. > descriptivizers (who probably never taught a word of grammar a day in their lives)

    Dunno about any other descriptivists (the preferred term) who visit this blog, but I make my living as an editor at a company you have heard of. And our house style follows CMoS, whose 14th edition says of the split infinitive "... has been dropped from the fourteenth edition becayse the Press now regards the intelligent and discriminating use of the construction as a legitimate form of expression and nothing writers or editors need feel uneasy about."

    I do, in fact, "teach" grammar every day. However, I focus on teaching clarity and precision, not superstitions and how to avoid meaningless shibboleths.

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  18. Crenelated BrainstissueJanuary 25, 2010 at 9:23 PM

    Mike...Miiiiike...Miiiiiiiiike!
    Are you really John McIntyre in disguise? Aren't you? I'll bet you are!
    Your post is a dead giveaway--wot, defending not only the descriptivist inconsistencies in this here selfsame blog but also your editing job AND the status quo of the press viz. splintered infinitives. Also, I know only one person who misuses the word "shibboleths" as you do here--and that's JERM.
    Come clean, Mike! You a shill, ain't you, you old cuss.

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  19. Okay, okay...I get it. I apologize for starting this. I now understand that the "canon" to which I made reference does not exist, and that my desire to adhere to it is a sign that I haven't joined the 21st century understanding of how linguistics works. From this time forward I will be open to a free-er use of the split infinitive (or at least less critical of it.) I will also recognize that I have been too dependent upon my trust in my teachers and professors who required me to adhere to the aforementioned canon. (Even when I completed my doctorate I received a written form which listed unacceptable language variations, including the split infinitive) in my dissertation. Henceforth I WILL TRY WITH ALL MY MIGHT TO REFRAIN FROM COMMENTING ON SPLIT INFINITIVES. And, it is clear that I NOW KNOW WHERE THE TRUTH IS AT. (I have to admit I shuddered when writing that.)

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  20. I always think it's funny when discussions about grammar get heated :)

    For what it's worth, I think it's perfectly fine to split an infinitive. But it's only because I care more about the message than how it's presented -- isn't the message the whole point of language, anyway? As long as what I'm saying is clear to my audience, I don't care how it's written. (Maybe that's a bit extreme; I do *care* how it's written, but I won't fuss over it if it's clear already.)

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  21. Is it so difficult, Crenelated Braintissue, to accept that there are other informed people who agree with me?

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  22. I have to, with some reservations and a pause for pop corn balls and cider and a dollop of wonderment that so many teachers could be so wrong for so long, agree that infinitives can be split without altering the course of the universe. Better to split an infinitive than an atom, I always say.

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  23. Jed: "Henceforth I WILL TRY WITH ALL MY MIGHT TO REFRAIN FROM COMMENTING ON SPLIT INFINITIVES."

    It's not all that hard to avoid, really. ;-)

    Yancy: Never taught grammar? Have you looked at their CVs? Heck, some of them (Pullum & Huddleston) WROTE *the* Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

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  24. "Descriptivists do not say that there are no rules, only that there are fewer than misguided teachers and editors have imagined."

    Actually, there are far more rules than misguided teachers and editors have imagined. (Take a look at the Cambridge Grammar of the English language, which is 1,000+ page description of the rules of English--virtually all of which everyone observes without thinking.

    It's just that everyone internalized the true rules in childhood, to the point that no one notices them. It's mainly the pseudo-rules that are tenaciously promoted by the misguided, and they have to be promoted precisely because they don't conform to the way people speak and write.

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  25. Manteufel JagermeisterJanuary 26, 2010 at 6:54 PM

    It's not whether you split the infinitive, wrack the possessive, botch the subject verb agreement, cock up the parallel structure, sack the active voice, or completely emasculate the dangling participle. It's not how clever you are or how facile. What matters is--and this is the true thing--how much money you make doing it. That it's it. Everything else is gossamer and sand castles. Filthy lucre.

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  26. "Descriptivists do not say that there are no rules, only that there are fewer than misguided teachers and editors have imagined."

    Problem is, when you take the stopper out of the bottle, descriptivists are free to pick and choose which rules they wish to enforce and which to distain.

    It all seems a little egomaniacal. How few? Who decides?

    Where is the guide, where is the grammar for those rules we should follow and those we should cast into perdition? Oh... it's in the heads of the self-chosen ones who filter grammar for the rest of us barbarians and anal-retentive school marms...

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  27. Ridger:
    You have got to be kidding. The editors of the CGEL are all limeys. Get real. Never trust an Anglisher to quote you grammar.

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  28. Patricia the TerseJanuary 28, 2010 at 5:30 PM

    Enough, already, about the bloody split infinitive! Every now and again we get the same harangue, just writ differently. I don't split them - even over luncheon, as Cap't James Bellamy once famously did - and I don't wish to be lectured about it, yet again. This topic has been rehashed so often here that the discussion has become a forum for posturing. When the editors of The Times tire of reading the same letters from the same people on the same topic, they call a halt by simply not printing any more letters. (As they are Brits, they do it politely by announcing that the topic has been discussed sufficiently.) I think it's time to do that here. Thank you so much.

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  29. As far as boldy going where "no man has gone before," I was never a Star Trek devotee. But if modern Captains Kirk wish to use "man" rather than some awkward, less prosaic pronoun, I'm on his side. I left the Feministas behind years ago and I'm feeling a lot better now. Not all of us allowed our minds, characters or grammar to be rearranged by politics.

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  30. People, please. A split infinitive draws extraordinary attention to the adverb (as in "to boldly go"). If that's your intention, a split infinitive serves you well and is correct. If it's not, it doesn't and isn't. Okay?

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