An exchange on the split infinitive

In the midst of the big discussion on libertarian conservatives and homosexual marriage (highly recommended), Paul Nachman said that an expression I had used toward another commenter with whom I was disagreeing: “I’m sorry to inform you…”, was “grating.” Then he continued on another subject:

I’m glad to see that you continue to strictly avoid using the word “gay” for “homosexual” and that you continue to put “marriage” in quotes when in that context. Not even inches should be conceded on those.

In my reply, after responding to Mr. Nachman’s first point, I wrote:

Finally, I’m sorry to inform you that you yourself have gone astray. You have used a split infinitive:

I’m glad to see that you continue to strictly avoid using the word “gay” for “homosexual”…

I would have said this:

I’m glad to see that you continue strictly to avoid using the word “gay” for “homosexual”…

Paul Nachman replied:

… As for the split infinitive, “to strictly avoid” actually sounds better to me than the correct version (not that I noticed that while composing it). What’s the basis for that rule, anyway? Is there a logic to it (i.e. is it necessary for real clarity?), or is it mere fussiness?

LA replies:

At the moment I can’t go into an explanation of how the split infinitive violates the form and beauty of English syntax, and how the more often it is used, the uglier and more grating (to use the word you applied to another issue) our language becomes. I’ll just say that good writers of English do not use the split infinitive. (David Horowitz, for example, notwithstanding the increasingly overheated and ideological content of his writing over the years, never uses split infinitives, though unfortunately he doesn’t enforce this rule on his contributors.) Sometimes this requires, not just moving or deleting the adverb that divides the infinitive, but re-writing a sentence, which I do from time to time. As I’ve said, I don’t insist that others follow the rule 100 percent of the time (though I do, in my own writings and in VFR comments), because it’s often difficult to avoid the SI. But if they followed it ninety percent of the time, which they could easily do, that would be a huge improvement.

In the present instance, yes, there is or seems to be a certain overly formal quality in putting the adverb before the infinitive,

I’m glad to see that you continue strictly to avoid using the word “gay” for “homosexual” …

a formal quality that goes against the (strictly required, hah hah) casualness and freedom of our age, but it is good strong written English, which the sentence using the SI is not. If I had simply fixed it myself when preparing and posting your comment, as is my normal practice, you probably wouldn’t have noticed the change.

Now there are other, less fussy ways to fix it, for example, getting rid of the infinitive altogether, like this:

I’m glad to see that you still strictly avoid using the word “gay” for “homosexual”…


I’m glad to see that you’ve continued strictly avoiding the word “gay” for “homosexual”…

Today, it is much harder to hold the line against the SP, since the New York Times went over to the dark side some years ago (indeed, Times goes out of its way to divide infinitives, as if sticking in our face its transgression of a once honored rule), and other prestige publications have followed suit. But VFR is nothing if not a voice of resistance against the dominant culture.

—end of initial entry—

Laura Wood writes:

Richard Mitchell, also known as the Underground Grammarian, said something you’d agree with: “Split infinitives: the first step to moral decay.”

LA replies:


LA continues:

For example, to my mind, when the New York Times almost delights in going out of the way to split infinitives, that is part and parcel of the Times’s entire program of undermining and diversifying and dissolving our society.

Kevin S. writes:

Given the “weight” of recent discussion I would guess some find this topic a bit out of place. The preservation of English in correct and proper form play a role in the preservation of our culture. (My own admittedly limited mastery of the language was greatly improved by learning to speak French fluently.) Like you I have a heightened aversion to the split infinitive. I also find it annoying when a writer randomly switches between active and passive voice though I am routinely guilty myself.

Like much of what passes for an education these days, there remains no expectation of even a modest command of our language. This is particularly glaring among those with a college degree. Many have an appalling inability to communicate in English in either written or verbal form. All but a very few of these “educated” individuals also had no courses in Western intellectual traditions, philosophy, architecture, or even anything meaningful in general history. They are not so much educated as they are trained like carnival performers.

Others may find it trite or annoying, but I thank you for your “nit picking” mindset in this regard.

LA replies:

Thank you. It feels good to being thanked for an inherent aspect of my personality that has more generally been an object of criticism—or worse—during the course of my life.

James P. writes:

Paul Nachman wrote:

As for the split infinitive, “to strictly avoid” actually sounds better to me than the correct version.

One hears the incorrect usage so often that many people think it “sounds better” and thus feel compelled to imitate it. Popular culture inculcates vulgarity of speech just as it inculcates vulgarity of thought, dress, and behavior. This is the reason to avoid popular culture in all its degraded forms!

Leonard K. writes:

After reading your discussion on the split infinitive, I switched to a cruise ship review site, and immediately bumped into this:

“The veranda was not exceptionally large, but it was deep enough to easily hold two deck chairs and a table.”

LA replies:

That is a very mild, garden-variety split infinitive of the type that surrounds us.

Much worse is to be found every day in the mainstream conservative blogosphere, which is filled with aggressively tone-deaf, uneducated writers who split infinitives with abandon—who (like the writers at the New York Times, but without the Times’ subversive agenda), go out of their way to split an infinitive. Here is Steve McCann in one of the dozens of recent articles on the debt negotiations:

At a critical time in its history, the country has as its president a man unqualified and unable to lead. Even the left has begun to finally question their allegiance to Barack Obama, and more importantly, his allegiance to them.

Even the left has begun to finally question. You’ve got to have a driving gravitation toward ugliness and senselessness to write a sentence like that. Think of it: the left has just begun the act of finally questioning. It didn’t occur to McCain to say, “Even the left has finally begun to question.” No, he went out of his way to move the adverb from where it belonged and where it made sense, to the middle of the infinitive where it made an ugly hash of the sentence.

These conservatives, the supposed defenders of our culture, have no feel for our language, no feel for our culture. They are one dimensional exponents of the “conservative” ideology, and that is all they are.

Needless to say, the editors of American Thinker never fix these whoppers. They don’t edit at all. They just post.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

I endorse your principled loathing of the split infinitive and I agree with the fellow cited by Laura Wood who identifies the split infinitive with the collapse of social integrity. The irritating use of they and them as pronominal substitutes for a singular subject is another way in which sloppy usage barbarizes and uglifies the language.

Rick Darby writes:

Too many supposedly educated people have no feeling for clarity, not to mention felicitous phrasing, when using (or abusing) our wonderful language. You are right that “begun to finally question” is ugly and “finally begun to question” is easier on the eye and ear.

Yet many specialists in English usage scoff at the rule about not splitting infinitives. It dates from the 18th century when scholars first tried to establish formal rules of grammar for the language. They took Latin as their model, and you can’t split an infinitive in Latin (or French, or Italian—any of the Romance languages, I believe). So they decided it was “wrong” in English.

Even the great H.W. Fowler (Modern English Usage), sensitive to style, acknowledged that sometimes it’s more awkward not to split and infinitive than to do so. If I recall, the example he gave was, “I am unable completely to agree with him.” It sounds stuffy, academic.

So forgive me, but on this point I am unable to agree with you completely.

LA replies:

I disagree with Fowler. “I am unable to completely agree with him” is bad writing, period. “I am unable completely to agree with him” is good, strong written English. To say that the latter is “stuffy” is to say that all form and formality is stuffy. Maybe Fowler is against men wearing jackets and ties. If he would split the infinitive in this case, out of fear of stuffiness, I can’t think of any instance in which he wouldn’t split the infinitive.

The test of rightness is who does it. Good writers don’t split infinitives. As soon as a writer starts splitting infinitives, he declines. In Book IV of Paradise Lost, Satan says,

Myself am hell,
And in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide…

In the same way, the very presence of split infinitives is decline. A writer who commonly splits infinitives shows that he has no feeling for the form and beauty of the English sentence. He also has no feeling for how his bad writing bothers readers who do have such feeling. He’s like a man who goes to a threater or concert hall wearing sweat pants. He is mass man, the man who has no standards higher than himself.

Yes, of course, there may be exceptions to the rule, for example, when the adverb and verb form a compound unit and therefore the adverb must appear directly before the verb, dividing “to” from the verb. But saying that there are occasional exceptions to the rule is not to say that the rule shouldn’t exist. By agreeing with those who “scoff [scoff!] at the rule against split infinitives,” you are saying, not that the rule may be sidestepped in certain circumstances, but that the rule shouldn’t exist.

LA continues:

I wrote about compound verbs as an exception to the rule last December:

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.

Also, regarding the example that is inevitably brought forward in these discussions, I have no problem with “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” The phrase has a feel and rhythm of its own. “To boldly go” sounds good and no other arrangement of that phrase would have sounded as good. Also, “to boldly go” forms the first two feet of an iambic pentameter line. So the split infinitive in this case “works.” The same cannot be said of 99 percent of split infinitives.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

On the rule against the split infinitive I might be, in relation to you, “more Catholic than the Pope.” You would admit “Liberals are seeking to socially engineer society.” I would prefer, “Liberals seek to impose social engineering on society.”

LA replies:

If I were writing the sentence, I would probably do something like what you did to avoid the split infinitive, though I might keep moving it around until I found something that I liked better, maybe, “Liberals aim to achieve the perfectly socially engineered society.” What I’m saying is that if I saw “Liberals are seeking to socially-engineer society” written by someone else, especially if the compound verb was connected by a hyphen, turning it into a single word and thus eliminating the infinitive-splitting adverb, it would not bother me.

July 30

LA writes:

This morning a reader sent a comment that included this:

“he did not seem to even know … ”

Then, to my pleasure, the reader, having noted our discussion of the split infinitive, sent a follow-up in which corrected the split infinitive himself and changed the phrase to this:

“he did not even seem to know … ”

Would Mr. Darby have told the reader that the correction wasn’t right or necessary? Would he say that the readers’ corrected phrase is no better than his original one? Would he say that “he did not seem to even know…” is good written English?

Stogie (the author of Saberpoint) writes:

Thanks for the lesson on split infinitives. I didn’t even know what they were, but educated myself and now I will be on the lookout for them in my own writing. To really know the truth is to really be informed!

July 30

James W. writes:

Let me second your attention to split infinitives. While a linguist friend of mine tells me that it was only in deference to the classical “unity” of verbs in Latin that 18th Century grammarians tried to keep English verbs united, split infinitives often grate on the ear. However, there are certain expressions that strike me as being “false” split infintives, i.e. in which the interloping adverb sufficiently modifies the verb that we might almost think of adverb and verb as a compound word rather than as a split infinitive. Of course, as I write this, no good examples come to mind.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 29, 2011 10:35 AM | Send

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