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Just split the damn infinitive

The charming article by Mary Norris on attending the recent national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing, "Dropped Hyphens, Split Infinitives, and Other Thrilling Developments from the 2019 American Copy Editors Society Conference," has been posted on Facebook, where it has inevitably drawn comments.

I will limit this philippic to three of those comments, by gentlemen whose names I will spare further exposure.

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Item: "I'm sorry, but I still consider a split infinitive a mortal sin."

Item: "It's a sad day indeed if the evil split infinitive has achieved acceptability. I think it contributes to the decline of civility in our society."

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Item: (commenting on the previous) "The decline of Western Civilization at least. Civility very likely as well."

I am going to be uncivil. This is arrant nonsense.

The Blessed Henry Watson Fowler exploded the split infinitive superstition NINETY-THREE YEARS AGO, saying that strenuous attempts to avoid placing an adverb between a verb and to often lead to "real ambiguity" and "patent artificiality."

It was for centuries what Fowler calls "the normal rhythm of English sentences" to place the adverb between to and the verb. It has only since the grammarians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in a misguided effort to make English more "correct" by making resemble Latin, that the split infinitive has become the great bogey of English teachers.

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(If bad pedagogy has left this superstition lingering in your head, please repeat, as you lie down to sleep each night, "English ain't Latin, English ain't Latin, English ain't Latin …")

Theodore Bernstein exploded it all over again in Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins in 1971, along with the American journalistic corollary that adverbs must not fall between an auxiliary and a main verb. Don't get me started; you know how I get.

And Bryan Garner lists the split infinitive as a mere superstition in all four of his guides to American usage.

How to account for the persistence of these commenters' ill-informed certainties?

The first thing is that it is easy. English syntax can be complex, and parsing is not for amateurs. But seize on one simplistic "rule"—split infintives are bad—about something easy to recognize—a word between to and a verb—and you've got a banner anyone can carry into battle.

Next comes the hyperbole: "mortal sin," "evil," "decline of Western Civilization." Oh, these happy few, standing firm on the ramparts to protect the English language from the advancing barbarians, armed only with a two-century-old misunderstanding about how English works.

At the ACES conference, when I approach Ellen Jovin at the Grammar Table, I asked her, "How stands our English tongue? Is it steady, is it sound?" Friends, our English tongue is doing fine. It requires no defense from split infinitive dilettantes.

But if this is the hill these guys choose to die on, I am confident that quarters have been arranged for them in the Other Place.

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