A different take on splitting infinitives

Oct 3, 2011 by

In an earlier posting, I discussed the prescriptive prohibition again splitting infinitives in English (as in to boldly go…). But here’s a different take on this problem, suggested by one of my students: why not split infinitives if in several ways the infinitive marker to is more closely attached to the higher verb (e.g. want in I want to go to Scotland) than to the infinitive itself?

The two observations that we need to consider in this respect are:

  • the infinitive marker to remains with that higher verb in ellipsis: e.g. Do you want to go to Scotland? — Yes, I want to rather than Yes, I want;
  • in some cases, the infinitive marker to can combine with the higher verb to form a single word: e.g. wanna, gonna.

How can we explain these facts while still maintaining the structure in which the infinitive marker to composes with the verb that follows, the infinitive, rather than the verb that preceedes it?

Let’s consider the ellipsis problem first: if the infinitive marker to composes with the verb that follows, how come it stays with the verb that precedes? The one thing to clarify here is that the ellipsis rule — whatever it actually is, the details being irrelevant here — applies to the part that is deleted, not the part that remains. The Verb Phrase Ellipsis rule, which is what we are dealing with here, in contrast to other types of ellipsis, applies to a Verb Phrase, the same constituent that can be replaced by do/did (so) — note that the use of so is optional, hence the parentheses — or fronted.

Let’s consider some examples. In the sentence John can play the guitar; Mary can, too the constituent that undergoes Verb Phrase Ellipsis is the verb phrase [play the guitar]. The very same constituent can also be replaced by do (so), as in John will play the guitar and Mary will do (so) too. Furthermore, the very same constituent can be fronted, as in John can play the guitar, and play the guitar he does every night.

The same is true of other ellipsis rules: they all identify what is deleted/omitted rather than what stays behind. For example, a noun phrase ellipsis rule deletes a (certain substructure within) noun phrase, and can leave behind either a demonstrative, a numeral, a possessor etc.:

  • John read these books, and Mary read those.
  • John read five books, and Mary read six.
  • John read Tolstoy’s books, and Mary read Austen’s.

Hence, the fact that the infinitive marker to stays behind in ellipsis does not prove that it composes with the higher verb. Now, what about wanna and gonna?

These too do not prove that the infinitive marker to composes with the higher verb: what we are dealing with here is an example of reanalysis, by which a two independent — but typically adjacent words become reanalyzed as one. This is the same process that is responsible for morphing the isolating morphology pattern into agglutinative pattern. This reanalysis may apply to syntactic constituents, but does not have to. For example, it is said to be responsible for creating case markers out of postpositions in numerous languages around the world; it is also the process that underlies our own coulda, shoulda, woulda (from could have, should have, would have).

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