Infinitives, split and otherwise


Dear Conan,

I have a question about splitting infinitives. I was reading an article online and it struck me that the sentence “So you clearly have to state you want none” conveys to me that it is obvious that you should state you want none. Am I parsing the sentence incorrectly? It would seem that the sentence would make more sense, and be easier to read as “So you have to clearly state you want none”, or maybe “So you have to state clearly that you want none.”

I suppose I should contact the author and see if he ends up blaming the editor (don’t they always) or can explain himself. But your answer will probably be much more entertaining.

Best regards,

MA

__________________________

Dear MA,

(Cue Twilight Zone theme music…) Okay, that was weird. I was actually sitting here putting together the latest issue and thinking to myself, “Holy cow. No mailbag questions.”

And…ZAP! There’s your question. How can I ever thank you? I suppose proper grammarian gratitude dictates a tall frosty one.

But I digress. Before I answer your question, two things: first, thank you for using the word “parsing.” And second, commas always go inside quotation marks (see the last sentence of your first paragraph).

See below for a detailed answer.

Your ally in correctness,

~Conan


This is an excellent example of why English is such a screwy, mixed-breed language. In other languages, an infinitive, the basic form of a verb, is typically one word. Witness Spanish, for example. “To see” in Spanish is ver. How much tidier and less confusing is that? English infinitive verbs, on the other hand, consist of two words (to+verb). So every once in a while something comes between a verb and its Calvins, i.e., the infinitive is split, usually by a modifying word, either an adjective or an adverb.

Is that so wrong?

As it turns out, the old “never split an infinitive” rule is more like a rumor. No one really knows who started it, and nobody’s quite sure if it’s true or not.

It’s not.

But some experts say that while split infinitives are not grammatically incorrect, they are bad style. Conan says, “That depends.”

First, if using a split infinitive clarifies the meaning of your sentence, then use it. MA’s example above demonstrates this principle. The thrust of the sentence would have been crystal clear had it been constructed thus:

You have to clearly state you want none.

But the writer got caught in the no-split-infinitive myth flypaper hanging from the editorial ceiling, obviously believing that if he ever does split an infinitive, villagers with torches and pitchforks will hunt him down, pillory him in the town square and throw cabbages at his head, and so he’s willing to sacrifice clarity on the altar of “Just In Case It’s True.”

MA’s second alternative sentence would have been clear as well:

So you have to state clearly that you want none.

and it has the added benefit of an intact infinitive, if that happens to be your kink.

Secondly, if splitting an infinitive enhances the rhythm of your sentence, then by all means. Split away.

Example: How much different would it have been had James Tiberius Kirk said

To go boldly where no man has gone before.

Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like the original, does it? Or what about

Boldly to go where no man has gone before.

Yuck, huh? Both sentences are technically correct, but they have all the style of Perez Hilton in a hot pink kilt and high tops. Plus the split infinitive just sounds better, doesn’t it?

So don’t get hung up on split infinitives. Use that energy on something worthwhile, like breaking your habit of using apostrophes to make nouns plural.

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2 Comments

  1. OK, this has nothing to do with infinitives that I can think of, but the Brooke Shields picture reminds me of a joke from that time period. “You know what comes between me and my Calvins?”, Brooke asks. “My brains.”


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