or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, September 03, 2005


Does anyone even remember what a split infinitive is any more? Someone at Slate.com does, and doesn't like it:

The 9/11 attacks struck at the heart of the New Economy. But the businesses affected—newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, investment banks, stock traders, insurance companies, accountants, and the New York Stock Exchange—were able swiftly to reorganize and get back on track in short order.

The infinitive--you all know this, but just in case there's a reader who missed this particular grammar class--is the uninflected verb; that is, the one that has no indicators of number, person, or tense ("I go" versus "they went", for instance). In English, virtually every verb's infinitive is of the form "to + verb"; "to go", "to say", "to have", and so forth. (The exceptions such as the modals--are they really verbs?--will have to wait for another day, if ever.)

In Latin (and most other languages, not just Romance tongues), an infinitive is a single word; French "aller", "dire", "avoir", German "gehen", "sagen", "haben". Since they're all of a piece, they can't be split into two, as the English verb can. But prescriptive grammarians in the nineteenth century, trying vainly to perfect English and trying to model that perfection after Latin, decreed that infinitives must never be split. This rule gives us such awkward constructions as "swiftly to reorganize", when the more natural way of expressing the thought is "to swiftly reorganize" (or, if the thought of the split infinitive cannot be borne, even "to reorganize swiftly").

The fact is that, generations of grammar teachers (including some of mine) notwithstanding, tucking the adverb inside the halves of the infinitive often seems right. There are times when the sentence reads better with the verb intact: "The dog began to pant loudly" is superior to "The dog began to loudly pant" (and I couldn't tell you why--it just is, in my opinion). But the famous Star Trek opening line "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is far better than any grammarian's fix would be (and there was controversy among grammar teachers back in the sixties on this very point).

I say, split that infinitive if you like, within reason. (Don't shove a half-dozen adverbs inside.) Listen to the flow of the sentence, to its rhythm; if it sounds better with the adverb interposed between the halves of the verb, then that's the way it should be written. "Swiftly to reorganize"? I think that's someone's inner prescriptive grammarian run amuck.


Post a Comment

<< Home