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Split infinitives

A recent comment thread brought up the old debate about split infinitives. I’m for them, in the sense that I think there is nothing inherently ungrammatical or even clumsy about them. Sometimes they are inelegant or confusing (e.g., “to boldly yet carefully and thoughtfully go”), but that’s true of a wide range of grammatical constructions. They should be evaluated based on how they sound in context, not based on some general condemnation of split infinitives as such. Let me offer three specific illustrations.

1. Some years ago, a former classmate of mine e-mailed me to complain about Justice Breyer’s recent opinion in Burlington Northern Co. v. White. Among other things, she faulted it for using “at least one split infinitive”:

As the opinion wants to split hairs, in a manner of speaking, over Congressional intent and matters of plain usage with respect to the English language, I would ask you to ask Justice Breyer’s clerk to go back and to proof the opinion before the Court publishes it. An opinion that scrutinizes language should not have any split infinitives.

But if this is an appeal to authority, it suffers from not having authority on its side. The modern usage dictionaries that I have seen describe split infinitives as fully standard. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1989) reports that “the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis.” The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary English Usage (1985) calls the aversion to split infinitives a “pedantic bogey.” Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998) likewise says that they’re in principle just fine. So even if one is a prescriptivist who believes in relying on the prescriptions of the authorities, the weight of the authorities is firmly on the side of splitting being just fine.

Nor is there any logical reason to avoid split infinitives, even setting aside the difficulties with using logic to analyze English usage. The origin of the anti-split sentiment seems to be that in Latin infinitives just can’t be split. But English isn’t Latin.

Moreover, sometimes unsplitting will change the meaning or at least the emphasis. Consider Fowler’s example, “modifications intended to better equip successful candidates for careers in India.” “Modifications intended better to equip” leaves the reader uncertain, at least at first glance, whether “better” modifies “intended” or “equip.” “Modifications intended to equip better successful candidates” leaves the reader likewise uncertain whether “better” modifies “equip” or “successful.” Or consider Garner’s example, “she expects to more than double her profits next year”; the sentence can’t be unsplit simply by changing words around, and rewriting it will make it longer and harder to parse.

Unsplitting also often makes the revised version sound stuffier, at least to my ears: Consider Breyer’s split infinitive, “such a limited construction would fail to fully achieve the anti-retaliation provision’s ‘primary purpose.'” “Such a limited construction would fully fail to achieve” means something different. “Such a limited construction would fail to achieve fully the anti-retaliation provision’s ‘primary purpose'” is clear enough, but it strikes me as clumsier — a personal judgment that I wouldn’t foist on others, but that’s more than ample to justify Justice Breyer in writing “to fully achieve.”

When I mentioned most of this to my correspondent, she replied, “I disagree on split infinitives. They are bad form.” Well, it’s hard to argue with a distaste for split infinitives, just as it’s hard to argue with a distaste for butter pecan ice cream. Yet it likewise seems to me hard to credibly condemn others for not sharing one’s distaste.

2. The New York Times blog weighed in a while back on split infinitives, and began with this item from the Times stylebook:

split infinitives are accepted by grammarians but irritate many readers. When a graceful alternative exists, avoid the construction: to show the difference clearly is better than to clearly show the difference. (Do not use the artificial clearly to show the difference.) When the split is unavoidable, accept it: He was obliged to more than double the price.

So far, not bad. I like the “to clearly show” version more, but at least the stylebook rejects the “split infinitives are ungrammatical” myth, while acknowledging that authors should keep in mind some readers’ preferences. Still, look at what even a measured preference against split infinitives yields:

The Treasury has promised to independently evaluate potential conflicts, but it appears that officials plan to start with the firms’ own self-assessment of any problems.

This may be a closer call [than the previous example], but a slight rephrasing like “promised independent evaluations of potential conflicts” would avoid the problem.

Yes, it would avoid the problem of irritating some readers who dislike split infinitives — but only by changing a verb phrase to a noun phrase. Verb phrases (“promised to independently evaluate potential conflicts”) tend to be more active and engaging than their nominalized forms (“promised independent evaluations of potential conflicts”). They tend to be slightly simpler grammatically (note that the nominalization requires an extra prepositional phrase). And they often make clearer who is doing what: In this very example, for instance, the original indicates the Treasury will independently evaluate potential conflicts, while the revised version leaves that uncertain (since it just says there would be independent evaluations).

That’s why “avoid nominalization” is itself common usage advice, and in my view better advice than “avoid split infinitives,” because it deals with real lack of clarity and vigor rather than just with accommodating the views of some readers. Again, I acknowledge that accommodating reader preferences is something that writers, especially writers at for-profit institutions, often need to do. But it’s important to recognize, I think, that this particular preference against split infinitives can be costly.

Perhaps it’s possible to rewrite the sentence in a way that avoids the split infinitive without nominalizations or other clunky constructions. But even if that’s so, it’s still worth focusing on the rewrite suggested by the Times blogger, a professional editor “who is also in charge of The Times’s style manual.” If the desire to avoid split infinitives pulls this experienced editor into making the sentence less active, more complex, and more opaque, it’s a fair bet that it will often do the same to other, less experienced editors, even if enough thinking can yield a supposedly better solution.

3. Finally, one more example of what happens when you’re enslaved by the myth that split infinitives are impermissible, discussed in detail by Geoffrey Pullum (Language Log):

The recent gift of a staggering $100,000,000 by a single person to Harvard University — the largest gift from an alumnus in Harvard’s history — has just been announced, in prose that suggests no matter how much money they may raise, the development and public relations staff at Harvard are afflicted by ancient irrational terrors:

David Rockefeller, a member of the Harvard College Class of 1936 and longtime University benefactor, has pledged $100 million to increase dramatically learning opportunities for Harvard undergraduates through international experiences and participation in the arts.

“To increase dramatically learning opportunities”? Feh. Read the post for more on the “unreasoning fear” of “a normal and fully grammatical construction of Standard English that is acknowledged as grammatical in even the most conservative reference works.”

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.



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