Against the split infinitive: the battle continues

I wrote the following to an especially brilliant conservative blogger for whom the following was such a shocking and uncharacteristic stylistic lapse that I felt it was incumbent on me to say something about it.

LA to conservative blogger:

Subject: doubly split infinitive

First, for myself, I never use a split infinitive (and I fix them in readers’ comments at VFR). But I don’t insist on that rule for others. I say that they should not split an infinitive, unless avoiding doing so is too difficult and awkward. If everyone followed that rule, 90 percent of split infinitives would disappear.

With that in mind:

You wrote:

What does it take for a woman to truly not be a feminist?

May I suggest instead:

What does it take for a woman truly not to be a feminist?

Now I admit that’s a bit awkward. But look at it this way. Suppose you wrote the same sentence, but without the adverb “truly.” Would you write:

What does it take for a woman to not be a feminist?

No, of course not, that’s terrible. You would write:

What does it take for a woman not to be a feminist?

So, if you were adding “truly” to the above, unsplit infinitive, where should it go? The only place I can see is before the “not”:

What does it take for a woman truly not to be a feminist?

The CB replied:

Thanks. I got rid of the truly awful “truly.” Thus:

“What does it take for a woman not to be a feminist?”

I replied:

Yes, that was the best solution.

Very often, a split infinitive can be fixed, not by moving the infinitive-splitting adverb (such as “truly”) elsewhere, which can have a clunky result, by simply by deleting the adverb. So many adverbs used by writers today are unnecessary. And when one of these unnecessary adverbs is stuck into the middle of an infinitive, calling attention to itself and causing a split infinitive, that is much worse.

- end of initial entry -

Sage McLaughlin writes:

Your comment on adverbs—that is, many people use too many of them—is on the money. Actually, it really is truly on the money.

In all seriousness, the overuse of adjectives and adverbs (often appended to verbs) at the cost of concision is one of my biggest weaknesses as a writer. I only noticed this about myself when I read Orwell’s observations on the topic in his essay, Politics and the English Language. Now, of course, I see it everywhere. In this case, bare insight hasn’t done me that much good. I still struggle with it, and only improve on it when I consciously make the attempt.

John S. writes:

Verily, verily I say unto ye, if ye split the infinitive, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom.

LA replies:

Well, as I said, I feel that way for myself—in my own writing I’m an absolutist on the subject. I seem to have an inchoate feeling that the universe will collapse and I will go to hell if I use a split infinitive. But I don’t impose that absolute standard on others.

Is this the grammatical equivalent of the Half-Way Covenant?

Laura Wood writes:

I recommend that you never read that particular blogger again. No one could have anything to truly say, I mean to say truly, if he splits infinitives with such casual brutality.

Kristor writes:

My problem as a writer is not that I use too many adverbs, but that I use too many words.

Daniel Webster writes:


A most worthy exposition of split infinitives and spilt infinitives.

Now as to your award. You have been globally recognized by your linguistic peers. “Austerity” is the word of the year:

Audacity of ‘austerity,’ 2010 Word of the Year
Associated Press —Mon Dec 20

SPRINGFIELD, Mass.—As Greece faced a debt crisis, the government passed a series of strict austerity measures, including taxes hikes and cutting public sector pay.

The move sparked angry protests, strikes and riots across the country as unemployment skyrocketed and the crisis spread to other European nations. The move also incited a rush to online dictionaries from those searching for a definition.

Austerity, the 14th century noun defined as “the quality or state of being austere” and “enforced or extreme economy,” set off enough searches that Merriam-Webster named it as its Word of the Year for 2010, the dictionary’s editors announced Monday.

John Morse, president and publisher of the Springfield, Mass.-based dictionary, said “austerity” saw more than 250,000 searches on the dictionary’s free online tool and came with more coverage of the debt crisis.

“What we look for … what are the words that have had spikes that strike us very much as an anomaly for their regular behavior,” Morse said. “The word that really qualifies this year for that is ‘austerity’.” [cont]

December 24

LA writes:

Here’s a possible legitimate exception to the no-split infinitive rule. There are some adverb-verb combinations which form a single, well-established concept. Take the idea of “social engineering.” The verb form of that noun is “socially engineer.”

Now let’s say someone writes,

“The liberals are seeking to socially engineer society.”

To move the “socially” elsewhere, so as to avoid the split infinite, seems unwarranted. In rare instances like this, I would not object to a split infinitive.

However, I still think the situation can be improved. I would add a hyphen and change it to:

“The liberals are seeking to socially-engineer society.”

The hyphen is appropriate, as “socially” and “engineer” form a single concept. And with the addition of the hyphen, “socially” no longer splits the infinitive, but has become part of the infinitive. Problem solved.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 22, 2010 02:49 PM | Send

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