I fail to really see what the fuss is about: there are worse things in life than splitting an infinitive

Posted by on June 29, 2009

© JavaDuke / Fotolia.comYou would have thought there was no sensible person left who believed that split infinitives were a crime to be avoided at all costs. But apparently not. In the space of ten minutes – while reading the Saturday Review in last week’s Guardian – I came across two clumsy sentences. In both cases, the culprit was the split infinitive – or rather, the contortions resulting from the writers’ determined efforts to avoid splitting an infinitive.

The first was in a book review by Tim Radford:

Lane might be accused of having presented the biblical creationists … with 10 handy arguments against Darwinian evolution. But that would be wilfully to misunderstand how science works.

The second came in an article by William Boyd, one of my favourite British novelists. He was discussing the fact that most of London’s well-known plane trees have many years of growth still ahead of them:

The plane trees in London’s parks have yet fully to astonish us

Why do otherwise intelligent writers submit to this tyranny, and – as a direct consequence – produce strangulated prose which is difficult to read?

We’re all familiar with the much-derided mission statement of Star Trek’s Enterprise – ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’. In cases like this, there is always the option of shifting the adverb to follow the verb (‘to go boldly’), which is in any case a more natural position for a manner adverb with a verb of motion. But putting the adverb before the ‘to’ – as in the two sentences quoted above – is often ambiguous, usually inelegant, and always unnatural. When we read a (perfectly good) sentence like this:

Steroid tablets work quickly and powerfully to help to calm your inflamed airways.

the default (and in this case, correct) interpretation is that the adverbs modify the preceding verb (the tablets work quickly and powerfully), not the following one (*quickly and powerfully to help). But when the adverb is ‘forced’ to precede an infinitive, in a sentence like this:

Opponents said he had failed fully to justify his decision.

we can’t be sure if his efforts were a complete failure (he failed fully) or a partial one (he failed to justify his decision fully).

BBC news reports regularly feature sentences like these, as announcers go to extreme lengths to avoid splitting an infinitive; apparently, any transgressions lead to the switchboard being jammed by outraged listeners. What infuriates linguists is the fact that there is no rational argument against splitting infinitives. The injunction seems to have arisen in the late 18th century, from a misguided attempt to describe the grammar of English (a Germanic language) in terms of Latin  – a fatuous exercise which also led to nonsense like ‘this is something up with which I will not put’ (‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition because Latin never does’).

The linguist Larry Trask – now sadly no longer with us – demonstrated the absurdity of this ‘rule’ with the following sentence:

She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

The infinitive is split – but where else could the adverb go without changing the meaning? If we follow the model seen above and say:

She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

it could be inferred that her decision was gradual. But if we say:

She decided to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected gradually.

then it looks as if the process of collecting the bears was gradual. No: the original sentence is unambiguous and reads perfectly well. It’s time we all stopped pandering to the irrational prejudices of ill-informed pedants, and split our infinitive whenever we feel the need.

Comments (3)
  • I’m pretty sure that there is no formal definition of “clumsiness” as a word in linguistics but I’m pretty convinced there could be. Apart from wanting a sentence to convey information accurately, I definitely prefer an elegant phrase to a clumsy one. Splitting or not splitting infinitives only irks me if the resulting construction sounds strained. If an adverb trips clumsily over an infinitival to, then I recommend avoiding the split. But if the to and infinitive can be delicately pried apart and the subsequent insertion result in a thing of beauty and a joy forever, then split away.

    Posted by Russell Cross on 7th July, 2009
  • She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.—>
    She decided to gradually rid herself of the teddy bears she had collected.

    Posted by Maria on 26th April, 2010
  • “She decided to get rid gradually of the teddy bears she had collected.”

    A little clumsy, but it seems to have that rigid “square peg in round hole” aesthetic that prescriptivists seem to like.

    Posted by Steve Lefevre on 31st December, 2010
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