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Split Infinitives:

Here's what happens when you're enslaved by the myth that split infinitives are impermissible, discussed in detail by Geoffrey Pullum (Language Log):

The recent gift of a staggering $100,000,000 by a single person to Harvard University -- the largest gift from an alumnus in Harvard's history -- has just been announced, in prose that suggests no matter how much money they may raise, the development and public relations staff at Harvard are afflicted by ancient irrational terrors:

David Rockefeller, a member of the Harvard College Class of 1936 and longtime University benefactor, has pledged $100 million to increase dramatically learning opportunities for Harvard undergraduates through international experiences and participation in the arts.

"To increase dramatically learning opportunities"? Feh. Read the post for more on the "unreasoning fear" of "a normal and fully grammatical construction of Standard English that is acknowledged as grammatical in even the most conservative reference works."

Turk Turon (mail):
"This is the type of nonsense up with which we should not put."
5.1.2008 2:40pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
I should note that the supposed prohibition on prepositions at the end of sentences is even more clearly spurious than the one on split infinitives. I have not seen a single serious usage dictionary or usage guide (and I've checked several) that says prepositions at the end of sentences are impermissible. (Of course, as with any usage, sometimes a preposition at the end of a sentence is clunky -- but that's a different matter from "ungrammatical" or otherwise forbidden.)
5.1.2008 2:44pm
Seamus (mail):
If they wanted to avoid violating the taboo, they could simply have said "to increase learning opportunities dramatically". (You can tell it wasn't a lawyer writing that release, however. Lawyers who are tying themselves in knots to avoid violating the taboo usually write things like "dramatically to increase learning opportunities". Either way, you sound like an idiot.)
5.1.2008 2:45pm
Fub:
Seamus wrote at 5.1.2008 1:45pm:
If they wanted to avoid violating the taboo, they could simply have said "to increase learning opportunities dramatically".
That works for me. For some reason, addition of the definite article also makes the phrase sound "right" to me: "...to increase dramatically the learning opportunities for Harvard undergraduates..."

As to ending sentences with prepositions: What did you bring that rulebook I don't like to be read to out of up for?
5.1.2008 3:10pm
Cornellian (mail):
A good subject on which to post.
5.1.2008 3:11pm
dafydd (mail) (www):
Turk Turon: *applause*
5.1.2008 3:12pm
anonyninous:
Georgia Tech kid goes up to Harvard for some research and gets lost. He asks a passing professor 'Can you tell me where the library's at?' The professor replies 'While at Harvard, we do not end our sentences with prepositions.' The Tech kid nods and says 'Sorry. Can you tell me where the library's at, jerk?'

That's from Harvard, 1946. It'll never change and there are simple workarounds.
5.1.2008 3:16pm
Hoosier:
Perhaps the author was simply seeking to go boldly where no man has gone before.

The "rule" about prepositions at the end of sentences is even dumber(-er). Frequently the words in questions are not functioning as prepositions, but rather as elements of a stock verb-phrase. Turk's reference to Churchill's quote is on the money here. We have phrase in English "put up with." Combined, they mean "to tolerate."

If English had stuck to its Anglo-Saxson/Germanic roots, today we might be blessed with a verb along the lines of "upputten". So Sir Winston could have said--mutatis mutandis-- "With this sort of nonsense is not uptoputten."

Frankly, given this alternative, I'd prefer to just have the prep at the end of the sentence.
5.1.2008 3:18pm
Hoosier:
Was the above written by a native English speaker, they ask. Ugh. Sorry.

Saxon or Sachsen. NOT "Saxson."
5.1.2008 3:20pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
True enough, but too easy a target. When's the last time you had an editor who didn't want you to split an infinitive? Myths that are far more well entrenched include the notion that the relative pronoun "which" can't introduce a restrictive clause and the idea that ordinary verbs can't be "split," which leads to clumsy constructions like "we long have known." Many law review editors (and quite a few legal-writing instructors) think these are actual rules of English usage. Neither has a shred of support in the actual practice of good writers.
5.1.2008 3:21pm
Extraneus (mail):
Shouldn't it be "...in prose that suggests [that] no matter how much money they may raise..."?
5.1.2008 3:21pm
Hoosier:
When's the last time you had an editor who didn't want you to split an infinitive?

Never. But my mentor/senior departmental colleague always insisted on it. A product of Brit-system universities. What can you do? (What can one do?)
5.1.2008 3:28pm
DJR:
As with all writing, one must consider one's audience. A partner who insists on not splitting infinitives will train lawyers not to split them, who will instinctively train lawyers junior to them, and the cycle continues.

While you lose clarity in the example here, usually avoiding a split infinitive doesn't make that much difference.
5.1.2008 3:33pm
Harry Lime:
"I have not seen a single serious usage dictionary or usage guide (and I've checked several) that says prepositions at the end of sentences are impermissible."

Prof. Volokh,

Can you recommend a few of the better usage guides you regularly use?

Thanks.
5.1.2008 3:46pm
Blue (mail):
Think of this theoetically:

1) Some people do not like to see split infinitives.
2) A much larger group do not care.

If you split an infinitive you annoy group one and cause no reaction from group two. If you do not split an infinitive you get a positive reaction from group one and no reaction from group two.

Therefore, it is clearly best not to split infinitives.
5.1.2008 3:50pm
JBL:

I agree that the sentence is awkwardly worded, but I don't think avoiding split infinitves is the issue. It's in how you arrange the clauses. The way I read it, the author should have just stuck with

David Rockefeller...has dramatically pledged $100 million to increase learning opportunities for Harvard undergraduates...
5.1.2008 3:55pm
Hoosier:
(Did Harry just ask a lawyer for help with usage? Can we color-code our posts to indicate when irony is intended? Sometimes I can't tell.)
5.1.2008 3:55pm
PaulK (mail):
"the notion that the relative pronoun "which" can't introduce a restrictive clause"

Actually, this is a well-established rule of English syntax, contained in Chapter 15 of the CMS. Lawyers invariably use which and that that interchangeably, and it contributes in no small part to the general opaqueness of legal writing. So if one considers "good writers" merely "those who write whatever suits them," then one can defend any manner of linguistic bastardizations. But if one maintains that a "good writer" is one who carefully observes the rules of written language so as to ensure that his prose actually says what he intends it to say, then these so-called "myths" become important.

Even the largely pointless rule about splitting infinitives and the sometimes-obtuse rule about sentence-ending prepositions can help clarify more complex sentences. The preposition rule actually serves a legitimate purpose in forcing the correct construction of sentences, at least when not forced upon a compound colloquialism like "put up with."
5.1.2008 3:56pm
Hoosier:
Blue--You're working with a planted axiom, to wit, "I don't want to offend people."

Change the axiom, change the conslusion, yes?
5.1.2008 3:56pm
Harry Lime:
"(Did Harry just ask a lawyer for help with usage? Can we color-code our posts to indicate when irony is intended? Sometimes I can't tell.)"

No irony intended. I was just curious as to which usage guides EV thinks are best. There's a ton of them out there; the only one I own is The Elements of Style. Also, I'm not a lawyer yet. Still need to take that pesky test come July.
5.1.2008 4:03pm
Chicago:
Perhaps the sentence was written correctly, and this was just a gift to the theater department.
5.1.2008 4:06pm
Gulf Coast Bandit (mail):

I agree that the sentence is awkwardly worded, but I don't think avoiding split infinitves is the issue. It's in how you arrange the clauses. The way I read it, the author should have just stuck with

David Rockefeller...has dramatically pledged $100 million to increase learning opportunities for Harvard undergraduates...


But that doesn't work, because the act of pledging wasn't dramatic. The increase in learning opportunities is dramatic. So dramatically has to be in the vicinity of increase for the sentence to make proper sense.
5.1.2008 4:11pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
PaulK wrote:

"the notion that the relative pronoun "which" can't introduce a restrictive clause"

Actually, this is a well-established rule of English syntax, contained in Chapter 15 of the CMS.

Some usage guides say this. But Fowler, who came up with the idea, conceded that it was not standard usage, and nothing has changed since then, except, alas, in the law reviews. Webster's Dictionary of English Usage has many examples (including one from E.B. White, who thought there was (or should be) such a rule.
5.1.2008 4:14pm
Seamus (mail):
Can you recommend a few of the better usage guides you regularly use?

Volokh Conspirator Jim Lindgren (who taught me criminal law in another life) once wrote an essay praising the Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. I've always found it pretty good.

Actually, this is a well-established rule of English syntax, contained in Chapter 15 of the CMS.

Self-appointed grammarians and stylists have attempted to force the language to conform to this "rule," but actual educated users of the language have never fallen into place. The aforementioned Webster's Dictionary of English Usage rather gleefully points out that the very people who proclaim this rule often ignore it in practice. Thus, they cite Strunk and White's recommendation of "which-hunting," then quote E.B. White's "Death of a Pig": "[t]he premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure when the community markes solemnly on its calendar." (Webster's cites Joseph Wilson, who points out that Jacques Barzun cites the rule on one page of his "Simple &Direct," then violates it himself on the very next page.)
5.1.2008 4:21pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Harry Lime: On my shelf are Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Burchfield's The New Fowler's, Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Harper's Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, and Merriam Webster's Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. I've heard good things about all of them, but I myself prefer the last one.

I view Elements of Style as advice on how to write clearly, not as a guide for what the rules of grammar or usage are.
5.1.2008 4:46pm
gwinje:
Between this and Professor Volokh's suspiscion of exclamation points, I'm beginning to think I've found my style guru.
5.1.2008 4:48pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
I've heard this one chalked up to the Idol of Latin, along the following lines: Infinitives in Latin are morphological units that can't be split; it follows, then (since Latin is linguistically exemplary), that we ought to keep infinitives in English similarly unitary.

Anyone know what truth (if any) there is to that rumor?
5.1.2008 4:48pm
Harry Lime:
EV: Many thanks!
5.1.2008 4:51pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Alan Gunn: Sadly, I have often had such editors.
5.1.2008 4:58pm
AK (mail):
It doesn't bother me to see split infinitives or sentences that end with prepositions, but I avoid both scrupulously. As a rule I have found that, when an infinitive is split or a sentence ends with a preposition, the sentence is probably not as clear or concise as it could be. If there's really no way around it, I'll leave it in, but I almost always end up with a better sentence if I rephrase.
5.1.2008 5:16pm
Wahoowa:
On the topic of usage guides:
Prof. Volokh's list is excellent as far as general usage guides go. But if you're looking for something more specific, Garner's "A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage" can't be beat. It's pretty comprehensive and delightfully condescending and/or dismissive toward some of the more annoying affectations of bad legal writers.

Garner's take on split infinitives: "Split infinitives abound in legal writing, often needlessly--but they are not invariably wrong." He then argues there are certain splits to be avoided ("capricious split[s], which serve[] no purpose, unless that purpose is to jar the reader"), but there are also justified splits (Star Trek, for example, "partly because it is so familiar, but also because the adverb most naturally bears the emphasis, not the verb go"). He then discusses awkwardness caused by avoiding splits--the subject of this post.

Also of note: Garner is Justice Scalia's co-author for the book on legal writing that is coming out soon.
5.1.2008 5:17pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
Blue: "If you split an infinitive you annoy group one and cause no reaction from group two. If you do not split an infinitive you get a positive reaction from group one and no reaction from group two.

"Therefore, it is clearly best not to split infinitives."

Annoying fools is, on balance, to the benefit of society. It is, therefore, clearly best to regularly split infinitives.
5.1.2008 5:20pm
Hoosier:
Q--Yes, that's correct. Although I don't, alas, have my copy of Millward's "Biography of the English Language" here at the office. (Wonderful, wonderful book, by the way.)

My father-in-law is a retired classicist/linguist, and he confirms the story about the Medieval monks who first started codifying English grammar. For obvious reasons, they used Latin as their frame of reference. And besides, there wasn't a single English language at that time anyway. So why not?

But the Medieval mind was also very different from the modern. We tend to have a set-position that assumes progress. (This seems to keep coming up in the evolution debate: Honest people see all kids of "flaws" in evolutionary theory, since animals don't really seem to have gotten better since the Mesozoic.)

The Medieval monks assumed decline. The Ancients were smarter. Their horses were stronger and faster. Their languages were closer to the pure first language. Or languages. There was some debate about whether Hebrew alone was given by God, or whether Greek and maybe Latin were also uncorrupted by decline at one time in the golden past.

So, naturally, they tried to slow the inevitable decline of English. And so they sought to do so by reference to the Latin language, which seemed to be corrupted hardly at all. Not, that is, after the corruption that occrred between the fall of Rome and the establishment of the Empire, that is. They were convinced that Cicero used a better Latin than they did.

Latin was their daily language, and it seemed pretty safe from innovation for some time. One reason why the official statements of doctrine from Rome are still only the Latin ones: Since you and I don't go around speaking Latin, the words don't change in meaning very much. A key issue if you want to preserve what you take as Truth.
5.1.2008 5:23pm
CJColucci:
The so-called grammatical rule against splitting infinitives is nonsense, but there is rarely any positive case for splitting them. Almost any sentence with a split infinitive works and reads better when recast.
5.1.2008 5:42pm
rarango (mail):
Like Yoda we should all speak. For a Yoda style book I eagerly await.
5.1.2008 5:45pm
James Lindgren (mail):
PaulK,

The which/that distinction was INVENTED by the Fowler brothers in 1906 in the King's English. Though they recommended such an innovation to our language, they explicitly claimed that their newly coined which/that distinction was the practice of neither most, nor the best writers of English. As someone (B. Evans?) pointed out, a rule that is not the practice of either most or the best writers is not part of our common language.

Also, you need to read Fowler to see the exceptions they recognize.

Most schoolmarmish rules are not rules at all!

Jim Lindgren
5.1.2008 6:11pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Alan Gunn: About ten years ago, the Yale Law Journal demanded that I unsplit my infinitives, citing the supposed rule against such splitting -- and wouldn't relent even when I sent them photocopies of entries from three usage dictionaries that made clear that there was no such rule. This is the one usage battle I recall losing, in fifteen years of fighting many such battles.
5.1.2008 6:35pm
Bruce:
Hmm. I find the that/which distinction helpful for clarity, which I imagine is why the Fowlers proposed it. I didn't know of its recent vintage.

Eugene, around the same time I had a dispute with a fellow YLJ editor about using "since" to mean "because" (I'm in favor). I also lost. You can't win them all. It could have been worse, it could have been the like/as dispute.
5.1.2008 6:45pm
Crane (mail):
Almost any sentence with a split infinitive works and reads better when recast.


To you, maybe. I can think of quite a few sentences where a split infinitive works better. To quote the most famous example,

To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.

Splitting the infinitive is clearly the best choice here. "Boldly to go" screws up the rhetorical pattern of beginning three sentences in a row with the same word, "to go boldly" just sounds clunky, and there's really nowhere else in that phrase for "boldly" to go.
5.1.2008 7:29pm
Hoosier:
About ten years ago, the Yale Law Journal demanded that I unsplit my infinitives, citing the supposed rule against such splitting — and wouldn't relent even when I sent them photocopies of entries from three usage dictionaries that made clear that there was no such rule.

The actual cause of the "Yale Effect" of judicial clerks?
5.1.2008 8:02pm
markm (mail):
Blue: "If you split an infinitive you annoy group one and cause no reaction from group two. If you do not split an infinitive you get a positive reaction from group one and no reaction from group two.

"Therefore, it is clearly best not to split infinitives."

Clunky sentences written to avoid split infinitives annoy me.
5.1.2008 9:48pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Of course, Star Trek could have avoided the "boldly" by simply saying: to venture where no man has gone before. Maybe that's worse, but its hard to say after years of hearing it the other way. In terms of the sense of the phrase, they are pretty comparable, both conveying the idea of braving risks.

Another question on the parallelism: why no "new" in the third part of the clause: 'new worlds", "new life" , "new civilizations" and ??? Of course, when dealing with exemplary examples of English usage, its always a good idea to turn to television intros.
5.1.2008 9:49pm
CJColucci:
Crane:
Recasting a sentence involves more than simply un-splitting infinitives. It sometimes requires thought and real revision. Even the much-quoted Star Trek example can easily be improved -- even if you don't give a damn about split infinitives, as I don't. Notice that the first two sentences have no adverbs: "To explore," "To seek." A decent respect for parallelism suggests that the "boldly" in the third sentence screws up more than an infinitive. Why not recast the third sentence to parallel the first two?
5.1.2008 10:09pm
Kirk:
CJColucci,

You'd take all the art out of it! It already is parallel; the thing is, it's parallelism plus elaboration. That's what makes it moving, rather than sounding like a legal document.
5.1.2008 10:50pm
ReaderY:
The correct way to say it in traditional English is:

"To increase learning opportunities dramatically"

If one wants to avoid split infinites while sounding reasonable, the adverb often has to go elsewhere in the sentence, often at the end. The increasing tendency to put an adverb right next to the verb goes part and parcel with the tendency to split infinitives.
5.1.2008 11:29pm
SenatorX (mail):
Wow I've never had a post deleted for being off topic before. At least I hope that's why it was deleted. I'll just move on along then hrmph.
5.1.2008 11:31pm
SenatorX (mail):
Split Infinity

Take that! You may think of grammer but all I visualize are naked people, games, and unicorns. Errr.
5.1.2008 11:47pm
vepxistqaosani (mail) (www):
Y'all are missing the point. The principal sin of the passage quoted has nothing to do with the infinitive; rather, it is the use of the bit of educationist jargon ('learning opportunities') that causes the sentence to fail. So:

David ... has pledged $100 million to fund both international and arts programs for undergraduates.

Of course, this may not be actually true: Given the muddled abstractness of the original prose, a disconcertingly enthusiastic hermeneutics is required.
5.2.2008 1:33am
LawStudent (mail):
Re: the that/which distinction.

I happen to think the usage as suggested by PaulK is quite useful and makes for clearer writing. Jim Lindgren (and others) discredits it because it was invented by the Fowlers, thereby suggesting it is not really a rule at all. As a law student, I am curious to know what we should consider the sources for our English grammar rules. At some point in time, someone fashioned these rules that we now follow - but which are good and which are bad?
5.2.2008 1:33am
JohnnyKish (mail):
Hoosier,

Thanks! That was really interesting.
5.2.2008 3:26am
vepxistqaosani (mail) (www):
Law Student,

I'm afraid that the final arbiter has always been the individual writer's ear, and every ear is different. I have not thought much about rules since I was in school, for all that I was a professional editor of academic prose for about twenty years. Rules only came up when an author challenged my judgement and I had to defend it. (No, I never edited Eugene!)

If you have a rotten ear -- a phenomenon not unknown, alas, among lawyers, legislators, and academics -- then you will be unable to write prose that others will not make fun of.

It's very much like music. An ignorant listener will know that some pieces sound better than others; a trained musician will know why. But the rules he goes by are both those instilled in him and those his own ear has developed.
5.2.2008 9:15am
Eugene Volokh (www):
SenatorX: Yes, that's the reason. It was pretty wildly off-topic.

ReaderY: You say "The correct way to say it in traditional English is: 'To increase learning opportunities dramatically.'" Do you have any authority for the proposition that this is the correct way to say it in traditional English? As I mentioned, I've seen quite a few usage guides that say that the split version is also correct. Can you point me to some authority that supports your view? (I ask you about authorities because I take it that you must be relying on authorities, not on common usage.)
5.2.2008 5:31pm