1 EAGLETON NOTES: The Split Infinitive

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Sunday, 11 January 2009

The Split Infinitive

There has never been any argument in our household over the subject of the split infinitive and the need at all cost to one's grammatical reputation to avoid so doing.  One of the things about blogging with pedants for friends is that one is constantly aware of the need for observing the rules at least to a respectable degree.   A while ago I was chatting to Wendy over something or other unrelated to the split infinitive when the topic arose.  Now Wendy is a child of the sixties and split infinitives have not featured highly in her (considerable - a lawyer with a degree in Social Science) education.  After having explained the 'rule' the matter rested.  Until a few days ago when I was handed a piece of paper duly exploding the 'superstition' of the split infinitive.

The following is from the Oxford Dictionaries website:
This is a split infinitive:

To boldly go where no man has gone before!

The infinitive is to go, and it has been 'split' by the adverb boldly. Split infinitives have been the cause of much controversy among teachers and grammarians, but the notion that they are ungrammatical is simply a myth: in his famous book Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler listed them among 'superstitions'! Split infinitives are frequently poor style, but they are not strictly bad grammar. 

In the example above, to avoid the split infinitive would result either in weakness (to go boldly) or over-formality (boldly to go): either would ruin the rhythmic force and rhetorical pattern of the original. It is probably good practice to avoid split infinitives in formal writing, but clumsy attempts to avoid them simply by shuffling adverbs about can create far worse sentences.
Oh dear Scriptor Senex.  Oh dear Marcel.  Oh dear John Allison.  Oh dear...... there are so many of us out there.  It does look as though we have been mistaken.  Unless anyone knows something to the contrary................ 

3 comments:

  1. Split infinitives may be allowed for effect as may certain other grammatical errors so I’ll not bother resurrecting the ‘to boldly go’ argument but I fail to see a substantial difference between poor style and bad grammar. Henry Fowler wrote in 1926, "No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the 19c: raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned." (“In prescriptive linguistics, a solecism is a grammatical mistake or absurdity”). There is therefore no doubt that many people in the 19th century were happy to declare it ungrammatical.

    Added to which I am rapidly losing faith in the OED which has allowed a number of simply awful modern words to creep into its pages , thereby ‘legitimising’ them. i believe we need a more erudite and old-fashioned panel (along the French lines) before allowing horrible new words into the dictionary.

    It is my intention to unequivocally and wholeheartedly continue my campaign against split infinitives so as to completely and utterly eradicate them!!!. (How about that for a double double split infinitive!)

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  2. I had to leave a second comment because I find nothing more infuriating than going to a blog posting and seeing that it has 1 comments! Don't Google know the singular of comments is comment? Or if they do, is pedantry no longer worth the effort it used to be?

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  3. Don't be ridiculous. Of course it's wrong. Pedantry is no effort Scriptor, it comes naturally innit.

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