by Chris Cameron
Published at 2016-06-01
Q: How many editors does it take to split an infinitive?
A: Just one, but he has to really be persuaded.
If, as Dr. Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, perhaps it could be argued that grammatical prescriptivism -- strict and unquestioning adherence to rules -- is the last refuge of a pedant.
As an editor, I can be one such pedant. I bristle at double negatives; I weep over the abuse of apostrophes; if a restaurant’s menu offers me “complimentary cheese balls,” I will pounce on the poor waiter like a cat on a piece of fluff.
We editorial prescriptivists are valiant crusaders, but we need to choose our battles. One battle I have chosen to sidestep is the unnecessary condemnation of the split infinitive.
Until the eighteenth century, the rich stone soup that is our English language was written pretty much as anyone liked, following constructions and customs that had naturally evolved over time. Then a number of prominent writers and thinkers, including Joseph Addison and Daniel Defoe, decided that English should be documented and standardized, following the example of the French Académie Française. Although the idea of an English “Academy” never gelled (thank goodness), these literary control freaks began conceiving and birthing arbitrary rules for English usage.
Caught in the witch hunt was the basis of all English verbs, the infinitive, normally formed with two words: the marker “to” plus the actual verb. One theory is that scholars frowned on split infinitives because they believed English grammar should emulate Latin, whose infinitive is only one word and therefore is incapable of being split. The fact is that there was no precedent or rule in grammar to prohibit a split infinitive – until some officious language monitor decided that there was.
One thing is clear: to arbitrarily denounce an honestly meant split infinitive – and its user – has no basis in either usage or history. The entire premise has been based on subjective rules laid down by scholars who sought to exert a control that can never survive the unstoppable momentum of a living language.
“Syntaxation with misrepresentation is tyranny,” opined William Safire in his book What’s the Good Word? managing to offend both my spell checker and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Safire has a point: blind allegiance to arbitrary rules at the expense of communication exiles a living language to the gulag.
Editorial judgment is the key. In Grammar Matters, her deliciously logical defence of a gentler approach to grammar, Jila Ghomeshi reminds us that communication thrives on clarity, logic, and usage, not on rules. And the iconic Canadian lexicographer Katherine Barber in her lecture series, The Rollicking History of the English Language, noted that with 1.5 billion English speakers in the world, the odds are heavily in favour of usage over rules.
E.B. White nails it in The Elements of Style, telling us that “The ear must be quicker than the handbook.”
If we must have an official ruling, The Chicago Manual of Style gives permission to split an infinitive with an adverb to add emphasis or to produce a natural sound (Chicago, 5.106). In fact, placing an adverb in the middle of an infinitive could actually alter its meaning. No one would argue that “I really want to kiss you” (I have a strong desire) conveys the same feeling as “I want to really kiss you.” (… as opposed to our earlier false starts).
For an ultimate blessing, what better than these words of wisdom from George Bernard Shaw: “Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the cause demands it.” Taking him at his word, Lerner and Loewe gave these lyrics to no less an authority than Professor Henry Higgins:
I’d be equally as willing for the dentist to be drilling
Than to ever let a woman in my life.
I am an editor. I believe that a standard version of English should be taught and preserved, not to confine our language, but to serve as a benchmark, a starting point for greater writing adventures. Only in this way can we begin to explore strange new words, to seek out new verb constructions and new ways of communicating, and to boldly write as no one has before.