To boldly go…

Dec 15, 2010 by

One of the “poisonous tomatoes” of the English grammar — constructions widely-used by speakers (and writers) but frequently castigated by prescriptive grammarians — is the so-called split infinitive, where an adverb or the negation marker appears between the infinitive marker to and the base form of the verb: to boldly go, to not split infinitives.

The split infinitive has been popularized by the creators of the Star Trek science fiction television series. Their to boldly go where no man has gone before became a catchphrase and a subject of jokes. For example, the British humorist and science-fiction author Douglas Adams describes, in his series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the long-lost heroic age of the Galactic Empire, when bold adventurers dared “to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before.”

But prescriptivists are not laughing. And although no mention of split infinitives is made in Robert Lowth’s early grammar of English or indeed any other early grammars, manuals of usage from the middle of the 19th century on mention it as an egregious blunder. So this is an example where prescriptive grammarians “espouse the grammatical practices of the 19th century — though we would hardly heed 19th century science or medicine” (Peter Brodie). It is also a great example of the “epistemological populism” logic: what is possibly the earliest comment against split infinitives by an anonymous American in 1834 reads (highlighting mine):

“I am not conscious, that any rule has been heretofore given in relation to this point […] The practice, however, of not separating the particle from its verb, is so general and uniform among good authors, and the exceptions are so rare, that the rule which I am about to propose will, I believe, prove to be as accurate as most rules, and may be found beneficial to inexperienced writers. It is this :—-The particle, TO, which comes before the verb in the infinitive mode, must not be separated from it by the intervention of an adverb or any other word or phrase; but the adverb should immediately precede the particle, or immediately follow the verb.”

Many other mid-19th century writers condemned split infinitives too: in 1840 Richard Taylor called it a “disagreeable affectation”, and in 1864 Henry Alford lashes out against it even though he also pretends it doesn’t exist:

“But surely, this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And, when we have already a choice between two forms of expression, ‘scientifically to illustrate’ and ‘to illustrate scientifically,’ there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.”

Yet, other authorities on English grammar and usage endorsed the split infinitive. For example, in 1851 Brown said that although some grammarians had criticized it and it was less elegant than other adverb placements, it is sometimes clearer. George Bernard Shaw wrote letters to newspapers supporting writers who used the split infinitive, and Raymond Chandler complained to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly about a proofreader who changed Chandler’s split infinitives:

“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.”

Still, despite the defence by some grammarians, by the beginning of the 20th century the prohibition was firmly established in the press and popular belief. In the 1907 edition of The King’s English, the Fowler brothers wrote:

“The ‘split’ infinitive has taken such hold upon the consciences of journalists that, instead of warning the novice against splitting his infinitives, we must warn him against the curious superstition that the splitting or not splitting makes the difference between a good and a bad writer.”

So what is the problem with splitting infinitives? Supposedly, one should not split an infinitive because the infinitive marker to constitutes part of the verb. But this idea is based not on the realities of the English grammar but on those of Latin. It is thus an example of prescriptivists “pouring the new wine of English into old (mostly Latin) bottles” (Peter Brodie). In Latin, as in modern Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian) and many other Indo-European languages which follow the fusional model of morphology, the infinitive form of the verb is marked by a suffix which is an integral part of the verb word. English, however, has drifted more than many other Indo-European languages towards the isolating model of morphology, where grammatical notions of tense, aspect, number, person etc. are expressed not by morphemes that attach to the verb but by independent words. Thus, much of the English tense-aspect system is expressed through auxiliary verbs will, have, be. Various modal meanings are likewise expressed through independent words: modal such as could, should, would. Thus, the infinitive marker to is only one of the many verbal markers that is an independent word rather than a morpheme attached to the verbal root. And since to is an independent word, there is no problem in inserting other words between it and the verb itself. Hence the split infinitive!

I should also note that the split infinitive has a long and venerated history in the English language. We find it in Layamon’s Brut (early 13th century):

and he cleopede him to; alle his wise cnihtes.
for to him reade;

And he called to him all his wise knights / to him advise.

Here’s another example from John Wycliffe’s writings (14th century):

For this was gret unkyndenesse, to this manere treten there brother.

For this was great unkindness, to in this manner treat their brother.

And although overall split infinitives were quite rare in Early Modern English, we find an example of the construction in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 142:

Root pity in thy heart, that when it grows
Thy pity may deserve to pitied be

Split infinitives — like the prohibition against them became very common in the 19th century: Daniel Defoe, Benjamin Franklin, William Wordsworth, Abraham Lincoln, George Eliot, Henry James, and Willa Cather are among the writers who used them. Here is an example from a poem by Lord Byron:

“To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene…”

Examples in the poems of Robert Burns attest its presence also in 18th century Scots:

Who dared to nobly stem tyrannic pride. (“The Cottar’s Saturday Night”)

My conclusion? One ought to boldly split infinitives whenever one is given a chance!

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