Patterico's Pontifications


On (What Some Call) Split Infinitives

Filed under: Grammar — Patterico @ 6:28 am

On a point of word usage, Eugene Volokh says:

Moreover, it’s especially important for lawyers not just to be right, but to look right.

I used to work for a civil law firm, and one particular partner made this exact point to me several times, usually when I had deliberately made the error commonly known as splitting an infinitive. (If I say that I really was splitting an infinitive, then Xrlq will have a hissy fit.) Regular readers know that I am a supporter of breaking such grammatical “rules” if doing so aids clarity and avoids awkwardness.

For example, a sentence of mine might read: “It is better to awkwardly insert a word inside an infinitive than to mindlessly follow ancient rules of grammar.” In a sentence like that, this partner (a very good writer) would move the adverbs before the word “to,” so that the sentence read: “It is better awkwardly to insert a word inside an infinitive than mindlessly to follow ancient rules of grammar.”

I would object that this made the sentence awkward. She would agree — but said that our point was to influence the judge, and judges notice split infinitives. Better to show we know the rule, she said.

Any litigators out there? How do you feel about this? I see the partner’s point, but I wish that we had judges who preferred clarity of expression to a slavish devotion to archaic grammatical rules. If I were writing a brief to Judge Volokh, for example, I’d “split” all the “infinitives” I wanted.

P.S. Her other piece of advice: lose the adverbs to begin with. (There’s another bugaboo in the last sentence: a preposition at the end of a sentence!) Too many adverbs are distracting anyway, she would say, and rob your sentences of vigor. It’s decent advice. I should follow it more often.

24 Responses to “On (What Some Call) Split Infinitives”

  1. I’m not a lawyer and I don’t speak lawyerese, but I do write a little bit.

    What about sliding the adverbs south instead of hauling them north?

    “It is better to insert a word awkwardly inside an infinitive than to follow mindlessly ancient rules of grammar.”

    It might or might not scan better; reasonable people can differ on that. But it seems to me that it makes the sentence even more clear.

    Bottom line, I think it’s all just a matter of taste. You don’t have to worry about not being understood in either case. When in doubt, I rewrite to avoid splitting an infinitive because the specter of my 10th-grade English teacher, Miss Mary Rounds, looms over everything I do, but that’s just me.

    (Incidentally, I don’t think your “lose the adverbs to begin with” is a good example of ending a sentence with a preposition because it’s idiomatic. If you were to say, “He was present at the panel I participated in,” I would have an urge to beat you senseless, because your sentence would just hang there, ugly and unfinished, until you rewrote to read, “He was present at the panel in which I participated.” On the other hand, if you said, “He was present at the panel I just came from,” I wouldn’t mind very much, because “came from” is idiomatic.)

    Oh, your friend is completely, utterly, totally wrong about adverbs. Adverbs are the most heart-buoyingly wonderful part of speech we have. Also, every sentence needs a parenthetical set off with em dashes.

    (Yes, I’m making fun of myself here. Thanks for noticing.)

    Jeff Harrell (a5b150)

  2. What Jeff Harrell says, or your partner’s PS. It can be awkward to break a grammatical rule that might adversely affect your reader’s impression of your verbal ability (right or wrong). All the more so if you are writing for a judge.

    Martin (235ea0)

  3. I’d echo Jeff Harrell’s advice but take things even further south: “It is better to insert a word inside an infinitive awkwardly than to follow ancient rules of grammar mindlessly.” Semantically, at least, think “awkwardly” and “mindlessly” modify the their respective verb phrases, not just the bare verbs, so they are happiest in a position adjacent to the entire verb phrase (or as a post-Chomsky syntactician may call it, a V’). After all, the idea of “awkwardly” is to say it is awkward to “insert a verb inside an infinitive,” not that insertions are awkward in and of themselves.

    I think it’s totally cool that you were reading my blog back in December, 2002. That makes you and three others (two of whom were Google and Yahoo! bots, respectively).

    Xrlq (5ffe06)

  4. But

    “It is better to insert a word awkwardly inside an infinitive than to mindlessly follow ancient rules of grammar.”

    isn’t so bad.

    Kevin Murphy (6a7945)

  5. Perhaps Theodore Bernstein, longtime assistant managing editor of the New York Times and author of The Careful Writer, puts it best: “There is nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive except that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century grammarians, for one reason or another, frowned on it. And most grammar teachers have been frowning on it ever since. The natural position for a modifier is before the word if modifies. Thus the natural position for an adverb modifying an infinitive should be just ahead of the infinitive and just after the to (usually designated the “sign of the infinitive”).”

    He advises generally following the rule, but disregarding it when necessary, disregarding it “boldly in the sure knowledge that [the careful writer] knows what he is doing and can convince the discriminating reader of that fact, boldly because he is aware that to do otherwise would be to fall into ambiguity or awkwardness.”

    Hal Hopp (fccc98)

  6. Who cares? That’s why you are now a trial lawyer/prosecutor rather than a litigator/paper-pusher!

    slickdpdx (592355)

  7. Bernstein is full of it. There is nothing inherently “natural” about placing a modifier before rather than after what it modifies. Germanic languages put adjectives before nouns, Romance languages do the opposite. Neither is more or less “natural” than the other.

    As to English, we have a pretty hard and fast rule that adjectives must precede the nouns they modify, but no such rule exists for adverbs and verb phrases. Does anyone really think it sounds more “natural” to say “he badly drives” than “he drives badly?”

    Xrlq (6c76c4)

  8. Hmm. If memory serves, didn’t a major stylistic group (Strunk? Oxford dictionary? Damn, I forget just who) recently come out in favor of allowing split infinitives? I’m pretty sure they did, citing the usual, and correct, evolution of language arguments.

    Subject to “world opinion,” of course, per Kennedy et al.

    BTW, as a Canadian I was taught to keep my punctuation inside of quotes, as in:

    “I promise to sign Form 180,” said Kerry.

    instead of

    “I promise to sign Form 180″, said Kerry.

    But I see various Americans breaking that rule. Is it too up in flux, now? Or am I reading too much into a few typos?

    ras (482403)

  9. First, Patterico, you know that I’m not a lawyer. There may be special rules for legal briefs, especially those submitted to specific judges known for having a burr up their butts about split infinitives.

    But I can certainly speak to regular, edited, literary prose in published form.

    There is no “rule” about splitting infinitives, no matter what the schoolmarms say; edited prose has contained split infinitives for centuries, and the canon of Western lit has survived.

    However, there is a reason not to do so except in special circumstances: it’s clumsy and (as you noted) frequently awkward. The adverb draws a great deal of attention, stuck into the middle of an infinitive.

    (For those who attended school post 1980, an infinitive is a verb in the form “to act”… to go, to see, to eat, to fight, to belch; splitting an infinitive sticks an adverb into the middle of this construction: to boldly go, to noisily eat, to loudly belch.)

    Now, if you want to draw attention to the adverb, you can shoehorn it into the infinitive as an intensifier: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” The adverb “boldly” is in fact the point of the sentence… look how brave and bold is the crew of the Starship Enterprise! In such a case, it’s perfectly correct to split the infinitive.

    But unless you’re actually making a joke — “to awkwardly insert a word inside an infinitive” — in most cases, you don’t want to emphasize the adverb… in which case, it’s bad writing to split the infinitive.

    * To awkwardly object with a irrelevant point would anger the court: I would write “an irrelevant objection would anger the court.”

    * I went to McDonalds to quickly order a burger and fries: Better to write “I went to McDonalds and ordered a quick burger and fries.”

    The corrected sentences convey exactly the same ideas, read or sound better, and avoid emphasizing a word that is in fact trivial. For more compression, the words could be dropped entirely, as in the first example. The second would read perfectly fine as “I went to McDonalds and ordered a burger and fries,” since everyone already knows that McDonalds is the synecdoche of fast food.

    As far as ending a sentence with a preposition (or beginning a sentence with one), again, there is no “rule” except in the minds of the schoolmarms. What matters is to make the sentence clear, natural, and exciting or informative. George Bernard Shaw’s sarcastic example — “that is something up with which I will not put” — shows that there is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition, if that’s the most natural way to construct it.

    It’s something nearly all of us will put up with.


    Dafydd (df2f54)

  10. Dafydd, I agree with most of your points but with regard to the theory that to + V = infinitive see Patterico’s link to my alleged hissy fit. Yes, English “grammar” teachers have been teaching this nonsense for years. No, that doesn’t change the fact that it is nonsense. The true infinitive form in English (i.e., the grammatical equivalent to the forms ending in -ar, -er or -ir in Spanish, -(e)n in German or the -er or -ir in French) is the bare, uninflected verb. Adding a to on top of it creates something else which, for want of a better name, I’ll call a “to-construction.” It’s not a straight infinitive; it’s a prepositional phrase that contains the infinitive, and which is used in some, but not all, of the contexts in which infinitives are used alone in some, but not all, other languages, notably Latin.

    In fact, to the best of my knowledge, both the theory that to-constructions should be called “infinitives” and the theory that you shouldn’t split such “infinitives” are based on tired analogies to Latin. The “to is part of the infinitive” theory derives from the fact that bare infinitives in Latin were frequently used in the same manner as to-constructions in English (though it carelessly ignores the many other instances in which bare infinitives are used the same way in both languages, e.g., with modals or other auxilary verbs). The latter theory is based on the notion that if Latin speakers didn’t split their real infinitives, modern English speakers shouldn’t split their faux “infinitives,” either. Both theories are, I submit, equally silly.

    Xrlq (816c74)

  11. I think it was Churchill who had the quip about “up with which I will not put.”

    Patterico (756436)

  12. If I may interject…

    If one is tempted to split an infinitive, a clearer, better way of writing the entire sentence probabaly exists anyway.

    I can quite gracefully (as opposed to awkwardly, as in the example) insert an adverb between the “to” and the verb; what is awkward is the resulting style. “Awkwardly” is an adverb; “awkward” is an adjective. It is not HOW the word is inserted but what kind of sentence results that matters.

    A sentence may end with a preposition ONLY when its object appears earlier in the sentence (“WHAT are you looking at?”) or implied (“Lose the adverbs to begin with [an improvement, for instance]”); the idiomatic constructions ususally have the object understood, just as the understood subject of an imperative sentence is the unstated but implied “you”.

    Also, end punctuation is correctly placed inside quotation marks, with very few exceptions, such as “scare quotes” or quotes emphasizing the particular word, as in my example above.

    As a proscriptive grammarian, the numerous errors I see in my beloved blogs fill me with dismay. Meaning may not always be affected, but mistakes are distracting.

    Please do not sniff at grammar. There is a beautiful logic to it that discipline the mind to consider fully what it means to convey. Grammar (and I include syntax, usuage, and punctuation under this umbrella) makes words the most powerful tools in the world.

    After all, justice is a “terrible swift sword,” and language is the stone which sharpens it.

    goddessoftheclassroom (829889)

  13. World opinion, from The Economist style guide: “To never split an infinitive is quite easy.”

    Hal Hopp (fccc98)

  14. Wilson Follette also puts it well: “The split infinitive has its place in good composition. It should be used when it is expressive and well led up to.”

    Or Shaw–come on, Xlrq, you have to respect Shaw, don’t you: “Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it. I call for the immediate dismissal of the pedant on your staff [who chases split infinitives]. It is of no consequence whether he decides to go quickly or to quickly go.”

    Hal Hopp (fccc98)

  15. I’m much more concerned about discovering if there are one or two spaces after a period than I am about supposedly split infinitives.

    The Angry Clam (c96486)

  16. Yeah, and I still put two spaces after every period.

    I suppose you would put only one — if you still posted here. Speaking of which: why don’t you?

    Patterico (756436)

  17. I think sometimes I write more … aurally than some do. I don’t always write this way, but I feel like when I do my best work I’m very concerned with things like rhythm and cadence, the properties of spoken rather than written speech.

    In that respect, moving an adverb around can screw up your whole sentence. I can’t think of a good example right now, because it’s after midnight and also I’m basically kind of dumb, but I know I frequently bend rules of grammar to make something sound better. Not to make it more clear, but simply to make it sound better.

    Besides, if we really want to get philosophical, all normative grammar is bunk. There exists one rule and one rule only of communication: Whatever you’re trying to do, do it. If you’re trying to inform, inform. If you’re trying to entertain, entertain. If you’re trying to inspire, inspire. All else is detail.

    That said, I think a firm grasp of the rules of written English — yes, the normative stuff that I just got through calling bunk — is often a sign of other types of mental acuity. Somebody who can write a grammatically correct sentence sufficient to please even the most pedantic of nitpickers is, in my totally subjective opinion, more likely to be able to construct a persuasive argument, or to make an insightful observation, or just to be entertaining to listen to. Sticking to the rules and being a bit conservative in your writing is a clue to your audience. It helps them trust you.

    So while there’s zero objective reason to follow the rules, I think there is a distinct incentive for doing so. Even when it comes to a rule that’s as arbitrary as “no split infinitives.”

    Jeff Harrell (a5b150)

  18. ras said:
    BTW, as a Canadian I was taught to keep my punctuation inside of quotes, as in:

    “I promise to sign Form 180,” said Kerry.

    instead of

    “I promise to sign Form 180″, said Kerry.

    When you are quoting someone, as in your example, the punctuation goes inside the quotes. If you are using quotes to set apart a particular usage of a word, as in calling Dan Rather a “journalist”, the punctuation goes on the outside.

    I think I verified this somewhere about a year ago, but I can’t remember where.

    Mike D in SC (5338c6)

  19. I found this reference that says that in England and Canada, it is as I said in the previous post, but in the US, commas and periods always go inside of quotes. Here is the explanation of the completely obsolete reasoning.

    Mike D in SC (5338c6)

  20. I always put commas and periods inside quotes. Question marks go inside or outside, depending on whether the quote is a question.

    Patterico (08c813)

  21. Quotes are basically a display device, they delimit a bit of text to show that it is mentioned rather than used. The punctuation should go inside the quotes if it is part of what is being displayed and outside otherwise.

    Logically there are cases that should have punctuation both inside and outside the quotes.

    You may ask “Does he really mean that?”.

    Well, I have to answer, “Not really.”. There is something to be said for convention.

    Doc Rampage (b42666)

  22. I am an attorney who writes a lot of motions, appellate briefs, etc., and I can say that many of the judges I am familiar with wouldn’t know a split infinitive if they tripped over it, and the rest would be less concerned with the error than with the general clarity and persuasiveness of the argument.

    But periods and commas go inside quotation marks . . .

    Greg Shannon (ab8c66)

  23. I split infinitives without guilt or hesitation. Anyone who changes his opinion of me based solely on that, ignoring the rest of my writing, is a churlish oaf anyway.

    Patterico and I studied the same stylebook on punctuation in- or outside quotation marks.

    I habitually put two spaces after periods, but not to the point of forcing that spacing when writing in something (like this) to be displayed in .html.

    Beldar (44e870)

  24. Mike D in SC is correct in noting that the rules for punctuation with quotations are different in Canada and England from what they are in the U.S. Here are the rules for American English:

    • periods and commas go inside the quotation marks
    • semicolons and colons go outside
    • question marks and exclamation marks go inside or outside, depending on whether the question or exclamation is part of the quotation.

    See my more detailed look at quotation marks in my blog post, Quotation Marks.

    Karl Swedberg (d070bb)

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