Tag Archives: Peter Harvey

The Negative Canon: ‘Split Infinitive’

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

It really shouldn’t be necessary any longer to state that there is no rule of English grammar that prohibits the placing of anything between the particle to and the infinitive of the verb, yet there still seem to be those who believe there is. When this does occur they speak of a ‘split infinitive’, as if to was part of the verb. It isn’t, so there’s nothing to split. This applies to English just as much as it did to Latin, from which this strange notion is said to derive. As R L Trask writes in ‘Mind the Gaffe’,this traditional term is a misnomer, since, in this construction, nothing is split, least of all the infinitive, which is a single word’. Or, as Geoffrey Pullum has said on Language Log (my emphasis):

The misnamed ‘split infinitive’ construction, where a modifier is placed immediately before the verb of an infinitival complement, has never been ungrammatical at any stage in the history of English, and no confident writer of English prose has any problems with it at all. (As the grammarian George O. Curme pointed out in 1930, it’s actually the minor writers and nervous nellies, the easily intimidated, who seem to worry about it.)

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ suggests that ‘the enduring popularity of the split infinitive is due to its catchy name’ and quotes Ambrose Beirce (he of ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’) as more or less saying so in 1909:

Condemnation of the split infinitive is now pretty general, but it is only recently that any one seems to have thought of it. Our forefathers and we elder writers of this generation used it freely and without shame – perhaps because it had not a name, and our crime could not be pointed out without too much explanation.

Just to be clear about it, all verbs have a plain form, that is, the basic word that you look up in a dictionary. All other forms derive from it. Walk, for example, is the plain form of a regular verb, and from it we get the forms walk, walks, walking and walked. Walk is used for all forms of the present tense except the third person singular. It is also used as the infinitive, and is found in clauses such as:

(1) I like to walk

and

(2) I might walk.

Example (2) provides evidence, if any is needed, that it is walk that is the infinitive, not to walk.

No serious authority that I know of claims that the construction is ungrammatical. On the contrary, not to use it can have infelicitous results. As Trask writes his article:

Desperate attempts at avoiding ‘split infinitives’ often produce English which is not only tortured and unnatural but even ambiguous and misleading.

Even Harry Blamires is not greatly disturbed by it:

. . . it is not difficult to assemble instances of the split infinitive which are unobjectionable.

In fact, the question is really more to do with the placing of adverbs than anything else. We might write, for example:

3a. In heavy rain it’s wise to drive slowly.

rather than:

3b. ?In heavy rain it’s wise to slowly drive.

If placing slowly between to and drive is ungrammatical, it’s not because of any zombie rule about infinitives, but because that’s not where adverbs of manner normally occur. In other cases, the position of an adverb can change the emphasis of a sentence. It is certainly possible to write:

4a. The government have decided to increase the allowance paid to the unemployed gradually.

Here, the terminal position foregrounds gradually, and that is something the government might not want to do. They might want instead to emphasise the fact of the increase, and to minimise the fact that it is to be introduced in stages. In that case, losing the adverb between to and the verb does the job:

4b. The government have decided to gradually increase the allowance paid to the unemployed.

Pointing out that there is no rule of English grammar that prohibits the placing of anything between to and the verb doesn’t mean that it is always effective to do so. It was an unwise placing of an adverb that led Geoffrey Pullum to take an incompetent writer to task on Language Log for producing this sentence:

On this occasion we’ve been forced to take the decision to regrettably cancel your flight.

What the writer meant was that the airline regretted that the flight was cancelled, not that it was cancelled, as the sentence says, in a regrettable manner. It’s so poorly constructed that moving the regrettably to before to or after cancel isn’t enough to put it right. Pullum recast it this way:

On this occasion we’ve regrettably been forced to take the decision to cancel your flight.

There is also a pragmatic aspect. As Peter Harvey says in his ‘A Guide to English Language Usage’:

. . . it must be said that there is still a considerable feeling among English speakers that a split infinitive is wrong

and he explains his position more fully on his blog:

My job is to teach and advise people who need to use English for their business and professional purposes. I also translate texts, sometimes for publication, for people who are demanding in their requirements. I simply cannot afford to have a student come back to me with a complaint that something that I have taught or tolerated has been criticised in no uncertain manner as a grammatical solecism by a native speaker; nor can I afford to have an argument with a translation client on the same matter.

A similar comment, of course, might be made about the negative canon as a whole. Individual writers must decide what words and structures are in their best communicative interest. All I say is that those features of the language that I suggest should be in the negative canon are not ungrammatical. Whether or not it is effective to use them in any particular context is a matter of style, not grammar, a distinction which I made in an earlier post.

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