Splitting Infinity

OK, take your seat. It’s quiz time.

Now list three grammar rules you never heard of.

Had you there for a second, didn’t I?

How can you list them if you never heard of them, right? So let me ask you, how logical are some of the rules you do know? Or, for that matter, some of the rules you think you know? For example, how about such superstitions as “Never begin a sentence with and or but,” or “Never end a sentence with a preposition”?

Those “rules” were labeled “superstitions” by H.W. Fowler — who has been called “the King of English.” Fowler said that the Oxford English Dictionary “gives examples ranging from the 10th to the 19th” centuries for sentences beginning with and (Fowler’s Modern English Usage).

He also said, “Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are ‘inelegant’ are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers.”

Grammarians still hotly debate the crime of splitting an infinitive.

If you think that splitting an infinitive means driving an Infiniti over a railroad crossing as the gates are lowering, you might be a Lexusographer, but you’re wrong.

I’d like to say “simply put,” but sorry, there’s no simple way to put it. So pour yourself another coffee and read Bryan Garner’s explanation:

“An infinitive is the tenseless form of a verb preceded by to, such as to dismiss or to modify. Splitting the infinitive is placing one or more words between to and the verb, such as to summarily dismiss or to unwisely modify” — (Garner’s Modern English Usage).

William Safire gave an example in his collection of “Fumblerules” — mistakes that call attention to the rule:

“Remember to never split an infinitive.”

John McIntyre, the curmudgeonly two-term president of ACES: The Society for Editing, has waged a campaign against what he called “the no-adverb-between-auxiliary-and-main-verb superstition … a bit of non-idiomatic English still widely taught in journalism schools.”

The annual ACES national conference features a session on new changes in Associated Press Style — the rules guiding most newspapers. At the 2019 conference, Paula Froke, editor of the AP Stylebook, directed a question to McIntyre:

“What’s the stupidest rule in the AP Stylebook?”

Without hesitation, McIntyre answered, “The split-verb entry.”

“No longer,” Froke said.

“YES!” McIntyre shouted, thrusting his fist into the air. Victory at last.

Fowler took a surprisingly tolerant view of the sin of splitting an infinitive:

“The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish.”

Garner — the heir, apparently, to Fowler — commented, “It is this last class to which, if we have a good ear, we should aspire.” But, along with the mantle, Garner seems to have also inherited Fowler’s flexibility. Garner acknowledged that “Occasionally, sticking to the old ‘rule’ about split infinitives leads to gross phrasing.” But he cautioned, “Knowing when to split an infinitive requires a good ear and a keen eye. Otherwise, the ability to distinguish — the ability Fowler mentioned — is not attainable.”

Among the keenest eyes and ears in the English language was James Thurber. And he applied both to a parody he called, “Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Guide to Modern English Usage, Inspired by Mr. H.W. Fowler’s excellent Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

“My contemporary, Mr. Fowler, in a painstaking analysis of the split infinitive, divides the English-speaking world into five classes as regards this construction. … Mr. Fowler’s point is, of course, that there are good split infinitives and bad ones. For instance, he contends that it is better to say, ‘Our object is to further cement trade relations,’ thus splitting ‘to cement,’ than to say, ‘Our object is further to cement trade relations,’ because the use of ‘further’ before ‘to cement’ might lead the reader to think it had the weight of ‘moreover’ rather than of ‘increasingly.’”

Thurber added that his “own way out of all this confusion would be simply to say, ‘Our object is to let trade relations ride,’ that is, give them up, let them go. Some people would regard the abandonment of trade relations, merely for the purpose of avoiding grammatical confusion, as a weak-kneed and unpatriotic action. That, it seems to me, is a matter for each person to decide for himself. A man who, like myself, has no knowledge at all of trade relations cannot be expected to take the same interest in cementing them as, say, the statesman or the politician. This is no reflection on trade relations.”

Thurber’s addendum illustrates why I steer clear of writing about politics. I deal in puns, not punditry. I vote out of civic duty, but I’m more interested in the language politicians use to disinform us than in cementing relations.

As Thurber said, “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”


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