To Split or Not to Split

I’m not entirely sure why Wikipedia isn’t considered a quotable source of information in the academic world. As a refugee from that world, I find the idea of a Universal Repository of Knowledge very appealing, even when it’s overseen by a bunch of crotchety people who have made themselves the de facto arbiters of knowledge. (Click on the View History tab of the next article you read to see just how pathologically crotchety these people are. It almost makes me ashamed of being an editor.) These Wiki-elders notwithstanding, why shouldn’t we pool everything we know in one place?

I confess: I look to Wikipedia when I want to know something I don’t. I even recommend it to others.

As I here recommend the Wikipedia article on split infinitives.

Perhaps I like it because the Wiki-elders don’t. According to them:

This article is written like a personal reflection, personal essay, or argumentative essay that states a Wikipedia editor’s personal feelings or presents an original argument about a topic.

I’d maintain that there can be no such thing as writerly impartiality and that anything one writes must express some bias or other. That’s just how the human brain works. Perhaps one of the last things that separates us from computers is that we don’t just learn – we evaluate what we learn while we’re learning it.

The split infinitive article is a veritable font of information and primary sources; it also most certainly implies a conclusion about the subject. I have no problem with that in theory.

On the other hand, the Wikipedia article’s implied bias is that split infinitives are okay.

They aren’t.

As a quick refresher for people who didn’t click on the Wikipedia link or who don’t remember their last class in English grammar, a split infinitive is what happens when you insert something (usually an adverb) between the to and the verb part of an infinitive. (Wikipedia teaches us that the verb part is more properly called the bare infinitive.)

One of the many peculiarities of our language is that it has two-word infinitives. Every other language I can think of has one-word infinitives that are as splittable as a quark . You can’t stick an adverb between chant- (the verb stem) and -er (the infinitive suffix) in the French verb chanter (“to sing”). You’d get something like chantbiener, which is unintelligible gobbledeegook. (In the objective scheme of things, unintelligible gobbledeegook is even worse than a split infinitive.)

On the other hand, you can but shouldn’t stick an adverb in the middle of an English infinitive. Moreover, the proscription of the split infinitive isn’t just some foolishness propagated by high school English teachers that the Los Angeles Times should be allowed to flout. There are reasons for it.

I’ll give you two.

The first is that splitting an infinitive creates possible confusion when the infinitive-marking particle to is sundered from its bare infinitive. To is two things in English: it’s the infinitive marker, but it’s also a preposition. Indeed, to is more frequently encountered in its latter guise. Thus a split infinitive could lead to to being read as a preposition. It’s a dreadful sentence, but consider:

I went to in the kitchen eat.

What is the to in that sentence? If you write:

I went to the kitchen to eat

or:

I went to eat in the kitchen

the infinitive remains intact and we know which of the two tos is what. Admittedly, this ambiguity of the two tos isn’t frequently encountered, but systematically not splitting the infinitive avoids the problem entirely.

Simple.

Even simpler is the argument that the proscription of the split infinitive is a rule, and rules were meant to be followed. Grammar in any language is nothing but a collection of completely random rules. Arguing with one of those is like arguing that the goalie should be allowed to play the puck in the corners or that there’s no need to run on three strikes when the catcher doesn’t have the ball. Hockey and baseball would collapse without their rules. They’d cease to be intelligible as games. The same is true of language.

The argument that not splitting an infinitive makes it necessary to reconstruct a sentence is merely an excuse for lazy writing. Rendering a thought in writing is a challenge; the craftsman’s job is to do it within the constraints of the language in which he is writing. Expository writing must operate within the bounds of proper grammar and syntax, for exactly the same reason that a tailor must put a gentleman customer’s buttons on the wearer’s right and a lady customer’s buttons on her left.

Priding ourselves on our skill as craftsmen, Word Handler offers the following guarantee: we’ll refund the client ten dollars for each split infinitive they find in copy we’ve submitted.

 

 

 

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