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More from the Language Police:

A former classmate of mine e-mailed me to complain about Justice Breyer's recent opinion in Burlington Northern Co. v. White. Among other things, she faulted it for using "at least one split infinitive":

As the opinion wants to split hairs, in a manner of speaking, over Congressional intent and matters of plain usage with respect to the English language, I would ask you to ask Justice Breyer's clerk to go back and to proof the opinion before the Court publishes it. An opinion that scrutinizes language should not have any split infinitives.

I've often come across this assertion that split infinitives are somehow wrong. The modern usage dictionaries that I have seen describe them as fully standard. Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989) reports that "the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis." The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary English Usage (1985) calls it a "pedantic bogey." Bryan Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998) likewise says that they're in principle just fine. So even if one is a prescriptivist who believes in relying on the prescriptions of the authorities, the weight of the authorities is firmly on the side of splitting being just fine. (There are surely reasons to avoid certain kinds of split infinitives, for instances ones where there are many adverbs between the "to" and the verb, e.g., "to boldly yet carefully and thoughtfully go"; but that's a problem with the particular usages, not with split infinitives generally.)

Nor is there any logical reason to avoid split infinitives, even setting aside the difficulties with using logic to analyze English usage. The origin of the anti-split sentiment seems to be that in Latin infinitives just can't be split. But English isn't Latin. Moreover, sometimes unsplitting will change the meaning or at least the emphasis: Consider Garner's example, "she expects to more than double her profits next year," or Fowler's, "modifications intended to better equip successful candidates for careers in India."

Unsplitting also often makes the revised version sound stuffier, at least to my ears: Consider Breyer's split infinitive, "such a limited construction would fail to fully achieve the anti-retaliation provision's 'primary purpose.'" "Such a limited construction would fully fail to achieve" means something different. "Such a limited construction would fail to achieve fully the anti-retaliation provision's 'primary purpose'" is fine, but it strikes me as clumsier -- a personal judgment that I wouldn't foist on others, but that's more than ample to justify Justice Breyer in writing "to fully achieve."

When I mentioned most of this to my correspondent, she replied, "I disagree on split infinitives. They are bad form." Well, it's hard to argue with a distaste for split infinitives, just as it's hard to argue with a distaste for butter pecan ice cream. Yet it likewise seems to me hard to credibly condemn others for not sharing one's disaste.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Octopodes:
  2. Fulsome:
  3. More from the Language Police:
Tracy Johnson (www):
When I read "bad form" at the end I keep thinking of the Disney version of "Hook" and the oft said phrase of that aptly named Captain.
7.6.2006 2:31pm
Tom Anger (mail) (www):
"she expects to more than double her profits next year" should be "she expects next year's profits to be more than double this year's" (The meaning of Garner's example is vague without a reference to that which will more than double.)

"modifications intended to better equip successful candidates for careers in India" should be "successful candidates should be better equipped for careers in India by modifications [to what?]" (The meaning of Fowler's example is vague without a reference to that which is being modified.)

Generally, split infinitive always can be avoided by writing more precisely, and more gracefully.
7.6.2006 2:38pm
Steve in CA (mail):
Tom,

I think you're proving Eugene's point about this being a matter of taste. I can't see anything preferrable about your revisions to those sentences. Especially the first one -- you've added two words and changed the predicate to "to be," not exactly a vivid verb. Neither is "to double," but still.
7.6.2006 2:44pm
Tom Brandt:
My favorite example against unsplitting infinitives is the famous Star Trek opener:
"... to boldy go where no man has gone before".

If you unsplit the infinitive it sounds absolutely prissy:
"... boldy to go where no man has gone before".
7.6.2006 2:44pm
Christopher M (mail):
The justification is dumb, too. You can't split a future verb form in Latin, either -- "I will love" is just one word, "amabo." But you never hear anyone whining about "split futures." I remember a bunch of people complaining about Whitney Houston's cover of "I Will Always Love You," but never on grammatical grounds.
7.6.2006 2:45pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Tom Anger: Garner discusses your possible rewording of the "to more than double her profits" sentence, and writes, in my view correctly, that the two phrases have subtly different connotations: "[S]he expects next year's profits to be more than double this year's" conveys less of a sense that the woman is responsible for the increase, and "[S]he expects to more than double her profits next year" conveys more of that sense. Nor is the latter at all vague -- it's quite clear what is getting more than doubled: her profits. (I also don't really see the vagueness objection to the Fowler example; sometimes you want to stress what is to be modified, and sometimes you don't.)

More broadly, Steve in CA's response seems to me quite right. You like your unsplit versions better; I like mine better; it's hard to see why the unsplit are more "graceful" than the split.
7.6.2006 2:51pm
Dom (mail):
"to go boldly" sounds better than the original to me.
7.6.2006 2:52pm
Mahlon:
It is generally bad form, to be sure, and it should be avoided. As suggested, splitting the infinitive can usually be avoided by recrafting the sentence. With that said, Strunk &White (Elements of Style) grudgingly grant license to break the rules to those who have mastered them. The example of "to boldly go . . ." is an excellent one. Note that meaning did not suffer. Of course, the medium used helps to ensure the message was conveyed. The spoken word is far less fickle than the written one. Also, the context is less formal - a TV show's introduction is not a Supreme Court opinion.

At times, however, breaking the rule can add something to the writing.

Could we say, then, that "To use an infinitive is human, but to properly split it is divine"?
7.6.2006 2:59pm
Cornellian (mail):
"I disagree on split infinitives. They are bad form." Well, it's hard to argue with a distaste for split infinitives, just as it's hard to argue with a distaste for butter pecan ice cream.

And much like a distaste for split infinitives, a distaste for butter pecan ice cream has no rational basis
7.6.2006 3:02pm
elChato (mail):
I think Prof. V. is 100% correct- it's mostly a matter of taste. In my personal view, the examples given by Tom Anger sound better and more informal, flow easily, and are perfectly understandable, when "breaking the rule." They sound stilted in his "correct" examples.
7.6.2006 3:06pm
washerdreyer (mail) (www):
I may (pending a response) be in an argument with higher-ups on my law review over my preference for split infinitives and belief that the rule's basis is non-existent (or at least irrelevant to modern English). If I didn't already have a cite prepared to defend my view (Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue I'd probably use this post and citations therein.
7.6.2006 3:18pm
pedantry:
To insist that no infinitive should be split is akin to insist that no sentence should end with a preposition. It is exactly the kind of "errant pedantry up with which we shall not put."
7.6.2006 3:21pm
DeezRightWingNutz:
I like the Graceful Writer's use of "generally,...always." You sir, are Baryshnikov to EV's Mark Madsen.
7.6.2006 3:24pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Tom, I don't see how this is vague: "she expects to more than double her profits next year,"

If you insist that's vague because "profits" is too far from "expects", you could write: "she expects her profits to more than double next year,"

The sois-disant ambiguity has nothing to do with the splitting of the infinitive.

As Eugene pointed out, if you shift profits this way, "she" now seems to be a passive investor.

I have another quibble with your rewrite: "she expects next year's profits to be more than double this year's"

In your rewrite, whose profits are doubling? Microsoft's? The man in the moon's? In the original sentence, and my rewrite, we know the profits were hers.

To avoid splitting an infinitive you wrote a longer, to my mind uglier, sentence containing less information. I think you managed to prove Eugene's point.
7.6.2006 3:47pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Mahlon writes: "It is generally bad form, to be sure, and it should be avoided." What exactly do you mean here by "is" or "should"? The usage authorities I cite don't seem to support either. Do you just mean "I don't like it, and I like writing that avoids it"?

Likewise, you say "breaking the rule can add something to the writing." What do you mean by "breaking the rule"? "Breaking an esthetic guideline that I set for myself," as in "I don't like bow ties, so I make it a rule not to wear them, but in unusual cases breaking the rule can be good"? Or are you asserting that this is in fact a rule that has some external objective validity of some sort, and, if so, what's your support for that assertion?
7.6.2006 3:49pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Cornellian, that's not accurate. There are arguments against splitting infinitives (e.g. the two words together have a meaning and splitting them apart can subtly alter the meaning, perhaps in a way you didn't intend). The question is whether you find them persuasive, not whether they are rational. Simply expressing a preference for one over the other doesn't say anything about why.

Example: I don't like butter pecan ice cream because I am allergic to nuts. The preference is perfectly rationally explained.

Even EV's interlocutor provided us a rational explanation.

1. Splitting infinitives is bad form.
2. Bad form should be avoided.
3. Therefore splitting infinitives should be avoided.

You can argue whether 1 or 2 are valid premises, but to say that the preference 3 has no rational basis is incorrect.
7.6.2006 3:51pm
Shelby (mail):
Mahlon:

Perhaps ironically, I find "to split it properly" much more euphonious. I remember going over all this as a copy editor; it generally came down to what the M.E. liked, which became "house style".
7.6.2006 3:53pm
John Armstrong (mail):
I've considered the best "out" from a charge of splitting the infinitive to be a re-examination of what constitutes a verb. Breyer's verb is not "achieve", but the verb phrase "fully achieve", which has a variant meaning.
7.6.2006 3:53pm
Richard Bellamy (mail):
Splitting infinitives is my second favorite common faux language-police correction.

My favorite was when I was corrected when referring to "the octupuses" by someone who told me that the correct plural was "octopi."

What makes this faux correction even better is that the split-infinitive police are correcting an acceptable option with another acceptable option. The octopus police are correcting an acceptable option with an error.

"Octopus" is not a Latin root, but a Greek one. A proper Greek plural would be "Look at those octopedes!" "Octopuses" is also correct. "Octopi" is not.
7.6.2006 3:57pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Richard Bellamy: What exactly do you mean by "correct" or "error"? "Octopi" would be bad Latin and bad Greek, but the English dictionaries that I've consulted listed is an acceptable English plural for "octopus." Do you mean by "correct" "consistent with the word's etymology," and, if so, why is that a good definition for "correct" here? (By the way, what do you think of people's occasional complaints about mixed Greek-Latin compounds, such as "television"?)

Incidentally, I don't like the word "octopi," and don't use it, partly for the reasons you mention. My question is why it would be "an error" or not "correct."
7.6.2006 4:09pm
Alan Gunn:
I don't split infinitives myself, except by accident, but I don't mind others' doing it. The worst thing about the supposed rule against splitting infinitives is that many people who don't know what an infinitive is think there's a rule against splitting any compound verb. This misuderstanding leads to atrocities like "we long have known ..." for "we have long known ...." A few years ago, the "rule" barring split compound verbs had a following among law-review editors (and a good many judges). Things seem to have improved a bit lately. Curiously, many newspapers also bar split compound verbs. I've never heard anyone defend the supposed rule, but many people seem to follow it.
7.6.2006 4:11pm
Tocqueville:
Can one ever go wrong by following the long-standing prohibition against splitting infinitives?
7.6.2006 4:18pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
What about splitting octopi?
7.6.2006 4:27pm
Richard Bellamy (mail) (www):
Prof. Volokh,

My source is the Oxford English Dictionary in my office. While the complete one is not free online, the Compact OED's entry is linked to here, and verifies my claim. I quote in full:

octopus

• noun (pl. octopuses) a mollusc with eight sucker-bearing arms, a soft body, beak-like jaws, and no internal shell.

— DERIVATIVES octopoid adjective.

— USAGE The standard plural in English of octopus is octopuses. However, since the word comes from Greek, the Greek plural form octopodes is still occasionally used. The plural form octopi, formed according to rules for Latin plurals, is incorrect.

— ORIGIN Greek, from okto 'eight' + pous 'foot'.
7.6.2006 4:30pm
Richard Bellamy (mail) (www):
To the extent your dictionary lists "octopi" as an acceptable plural, I can only stick to my guns, cite to authority, and claim "my dictionary is better than your dictionary."
7.6.2006 4:36pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Richard, it doesn't matter. On matters of grammar, Prof. Volokh only appeals to authorities when they agree with him and disagree with his interlocutor. Contrary authorities are wrong because they are "divergent from common usage." It's not worth arguing about.
7.6.2006 4:41pm
John Armstrong (mail):
Richard Bellamy: The OED is better than any other. Moral relativism maybe. Linguistic relativism never!
7.6.2006 4:42pm
xx:
"Even EV's interlocutor provided us a rational explanation.

1. Splitting infinitives is bad form.
2. Bad form should be avoided.
3. Therefore splitting infinitives should be avoided.

You can argue whether 1 or 2 are valid premises, but to say that the preference 3 has no rational basis is incorrect."

A preference has a rational basis even if its premises are invalid so long as it has a logical form? That's absurd.

P1: All cats are french fries.
P2: All french fries are mosquitos.
C: All cats are mosquitos.

Under your theory, this argument has a rational basis? And I thought the dissent in Cleburne were unduly deferential. . .
7.6.2006 4:57pm
Mike Keenan:
I suppose there are many words with a similar etymology as octopi. That doesn't make it wrong. Sounds uncultured maybe, but that is only to my ear. Any other examples. Apparati (ugh)?
7.6.2006 5:08pm
John Jenkins (mail):
xx, that's very impressive, but overstating your argument, since I am talking about the SPECIFIC case here and you're talking about the general case, for which I made no claim. If the premises are wholly irrational, then the conclusion may be irrational. The premises here are not irrational, so the conclusion is not irrational thereby. Reductio doesn't work when someone isn't making a general argument.
7.6.2006 5:36pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Richard Bellamy: The OED was actually one of the sources I checked, though I checked the online version. It reports, "Plural octopuses, octopi, (rare) octopodes," and two of the sources it gives, an 1834 edition of Cuvier's Animal Kingdom XII and a 1942 National Geographic article, use "octopi." My New Shorter Oxford lists "octopi" as well; so does my American Heritage (4th ed.); so does the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary.

On checking more sources, I have found two contrary ones -- Garner's Modern American Usage calls use of "octopi" "mistaken[]," and the New Fowler's Modern English Usage says it is not "acceptable" and is "misconceived." Webster's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, on the other hand, doesn't condemn octopi. The majority (though not unanimous) view from the sources that I've consulted, then, supports octopi as an acceptable plural.

John Armstrong: You are now morally bound to switch to my side.
7.6.2006 5:49pm
Bruce:
"to boldly yet carefully and thoughtfully go":"to boldly go"::Picard:Kirk
7.6.2006 6:32pm
Pendulum (mail):
How terrible class must have been that semester.
7.6.2006 6:41pm
randal (mail):
John: You're wrong. But not for the reason 'xx' said.

The claim that "splitting infinitives is bad form" is the claim that has no rational basis. You can't save it by calling it a premise rather than a conclusion.

There's a relatively bright line between writing that isn't grammatical and writing that's bad. Many comments suggest that if a construction is likely to lead to bad writing, that makes the construction itself ungrammatical. That's silly. The use of "however" is likely to lead to bad writing, but that doesn't make the word illegal.

Having too many verbs, that exemplifies crosses the line into bad grammar. It doesn't even have to be vague or ambiguous.

The third non-rule I'm surprised hasn't been mentioned yet is case across "and". Splitting infinitives and ending with prepositions are back in favor, even with Eugene. But I doubt this sentence will ever appeal to Eugene or I. Well, maybe I.
7.6.2006 6:48pm
Syd (mail):
Not only can you split infinitives, but ellipsis allows you to leave out the verb if you want to.
7.6.2006 7:59pm
Gil Milbauer (mail) (www):
I think that people who maintain that splitting infinitives is wrong are really saying that that's what they were taught, and they have trouble accepting that what they thought they knew might be false.
7.6.2006 10:49pm
John Jenkins (mail):
randal, you're wrong. I gave a rational basis for splitting infinitives being bad form. Re-read the post (it's the part about changing meaning). Again, you can disagree. You can find it not persuasive. But, if you accept the premise that the purpose of language is to communicate and that being clear is better than being unclear, you can't call it irrational. If you want to attack those premises, you can do that, but that's a whole different level of abstraction.
7.7.2006 12:26am
lucia (mail) (www):
John,
Is this supposed to be the rational basis for why splitting infinitives is bad form?

There are arguments against splitting infinitives (e.g. the two words together have a meaning and splitting them apart can subtly alter the meaning, perhaps in a way you didn't intend)


The fact that splitting words can change the meaning is hardly a rational basis for suggesting infinitive splitting is bad form!

Of course organizing words in different ways can subtly alter their meaning. Of course, poor writers may write things in ways they didn't intend.

Of course poor writers can write things they didn't; many do so when they rearrange sentences to avoid splitting infinitives. (Tom Anger managed to change the meaning of EV's example sentence when he tried to demonstrate the wonder, beauty and precision achieved by not splitting infinitives.)

The fact that splitting infinitives permits authors to subtly change meanings doesn't make splitting infinitives bad form. To the contrary! It means forbidding splitting infinitives is counter productive because it prevents careful writers from saying precisely what they wish to say in an elegant, compact, natural sounding way.

So, I think this is more correct:

1. Banning the use of split infinitives leads to bad form.
2. Bad form should be avoided.
3. Therefore splitting infinitives should be permitted.
7.7.2006 12:53am
Bob Smith (mail):

The origin of the anti-split sentiment seems to be that in Latin infinitives just can't be split.

Similar sentiments (from the language elitists) were the source of the "never end a sentence with a preposition" rule. English is not Latin, and thankfully the efforts of weenies to turn it into Latin were foiled.
7.7.2006 2:35am
randal (mail):
lucia: Thanks!

John: I think you misunderstand the term "rational basis". A rational basis must be rational. Being able to articulate a basis, although necessary, isn't sufficient.
7.7.2006 4:55am
Mahlon:
Gee, E.V., I guess you called me on it. My "rule" is primarily a personal preference - a preference which was fostered by years of educationists telling me not to split my infinitives. You see, I'm a victim of government schools. Chastise me at your leisure; being so educated, I am, of course, defenseless.

My personal "rules," however, are premised also on the objective of attaining clarity of meaning in my writing. In my defense, however, I am not alone. As I pointed out in my other post, the spoken word and the written word are different beasts.

"Best advice: split an infinitive in speech whenever you wish, if the result sounds clear and unambiguous, but in writing follow the conservative path, . . ." Kenneth G. Wilson (1923--). The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. 1993, appearing at http://www.bartleby.com/68/76/5676.html.

Also, see the comment at:
http://www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/
aboutgrammar/splitinfinitives

I concede that there is not a generally accepted "rule" on the practice, except to say that all usage should be tailored to increase clarity. In this regard, I suppose I am my own authority.
7.7.2006 1:35pm
dweeb:
I notice all the citations in the original post were from the USA. I've found that American sources tend to be somewhat apathetic about the rules of English. For example, on the use of 'comprise' where 'compose' is proper, American sources tend to take the position of "it's not right, but everyone does it, so who cares?"
whereas British sources take a stance of "It's not right, and it's lamentable that everyone does it."

The richness of the language is decaying. We don't need Winston Smith and the Newspeak dictionary; we're already doing it to ourselves. Above is an example of one word replacing two - Duckspeak cannot be far behind.
7.7.2006 1:45pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Mahlon,

Clarity is a worthy goal. The citation you provide ( http://www.bartleby.com/68/76/5676.html) says splitting infinitives improves clarity!
7.7.2006 2:23pm
Mahlon:
lucia - Literacy is a worthy goal, too. Why don't you work on that? The cited page doesn't say that split infinitives improve clarity. It provides examples where the practice does improve it. The passage also says that the best practice in formal writing is to avoid the split infinitive.
7.7.2006 3:55pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Mahlon:

This potential for confusion probably accounts for the popularity of the split infinitive, which eliminates all possibility of ambiguity.


This sentence is preceded by several sentences discussing the potential confusion arising from misplacement of adjectives. The sentence is followed by several examples illustrating how the split infinitive eliminates this ambiguity.

Possibly, eliminating ambiguity does not improve clarity in your world. It does in mine.
7.7.2006 4:47pm
Chimaxx (mail):
Theodore Bernstein addressed the core issues of this dispute in his 1965 book "The Careful Writer" (one of my favorite resources on style and usage, despite its age):

"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 ever since. The natural position for a modifier is before the word it 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').

"That is what reason has to say on the subject. But reason and logic are not always the determining considerations in usage. As the permissivists are so fond of telling us, what the language should be cannot always stand up in the face of what the language is. In this instance what the language is has been profoundly shaped by those dead grammarrians and their heirs and assigns, For better or worse, their taboo against the split infinitive is a linguistic fact of life, which the writer ignores at his own risk. Does that mean the risk should never be taken? By no means.

[...skipping a longish passage that discusses competing authorities and gives specific guidance on when to split or unsplit...]

"Sometimes a writer will cringe in terror before an imagined taboo. When an infinitive contains an auxiliary--a part of the verb to be or to have--even the most hair-splitting anti-infinitive-splitter does not contend that an adverb cannot stand before the main verb. Complete sanction is given to such a construction as 'His aim in life was to be constantly improving' [...]

"The issue of the split infinitive has been undergoing a gradual change, It may well be that fifty years from now the taboo will be dead. [Alas this thread shows that the taboo seems to be showing a good bit of life 40 years on from when he wrote that.] But for the present the careful writer will in general observe it and when necessary disregard it. He will disregard it not defiantly but boldly--boldly in the sure knowledge that he 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"
7.7.2006 6:29pm
randal (mail):
The richness of the language is decaying.

Don't lets be silly. Language changes, it doesn't decay. In fact, the richness of language is borne from its flexibility. Stupid old crappy words and usages die, and new exciting cool ones replace them.
7.7.2006 11:25pm