Failing immediately to

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As BBC Radio 4 reported the death of Senator Kennedy on the news, I heard a line about how his career had been blighted by the incident at the bridge at Chappaquiddick where "he failed immediately to report an accident". You can see what has happened: in an inadvisable attempt to avoid a split infinitive, the adverb has been placed before to, but this puts it next to failed, so we get interference from a distracting and unintended meaning that involves immediate failure (whatever that might mean). It was the reporting that should have been immediate. The right word order to pick would have been "he failed to immediately report an accident". But you just can't stop writers of news copy from being worried (falsely) that splitting an infinitive is some kind of mistake.

I should add one thing. Many of the comments that began appearing below the first version of this post (I have deleted them, for reasons I will now explain) wanted to argue for "he failed to report an accident immediately". But in fact that option was rendered disastrously less plausible in the BBC sentence, which I shortened (thinking the rest of the object irrelevant). It was roughly this: "he failed immediately to report an accident in which he drove off a bridge and his female companion drowned". It would of course be much worse to try "he failed to report an accident in which he drove off a bridge and his female companion drowned immediately", where almost no one would take the adverb to modify the verb report.

Other commenters want to defend "he failed to report immediately an accident". That would in fact also have been acceptable in the full context (which I did not originally give), but only because the noun phrase was long.

Still other commenters simply quibbled with earlier commenters or made sarcastic remarks about them or made the ridiculous suggestion that "an Americanism" was involved (Americans who find a sentence questionable always say it sounds British and British speakers say it's an Americanism — they blame whichever side of the Atlantic they know least about). These bored me, and I spiked them all.

Let me make this clear: I'm not saying that you never have a choice, and I'm not saying the split infinitive is always the right choice to make. All I'm saying that, squirm though you may, it is fairly common for placing an adverb between infinitival to and the following plain-form verb to be not just grammatical (it is always grammatical), but also the best stylistic choice. And this was one. But BBC editors resist that and worry about it. Stupidly.



48 Comments

  1. Cyrious Garnetski said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 1:51 am

    Many broadcasters and publications have style manuals that tell the writer the grammatical rules they want followed. This may have been the case here.

  2. David said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 3:38 am

    Whenever there is a conflict between prescriptivist rules and clarity, I go for the third option: rewrite…

    "his career had been blighted by the incident at the bridge at Chappaquiddick where he didn't immediately report an accident"

    For me, this is the best way to keep everyone happy.

    [It's cowardice. Why on earth should good writers be forced (or tempted) to rewrite good, clear, grammatical prose to satisfy the misguided whining of nutballs who haven't even looked in the usage manuals they pretend to revere? —GKP]

  3. David said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 4:32 am

    "Why on earth should good writers be forced (or tempted) to rewrite…"

    Because if you're writing for the BBC and if you want to be regarded as using standard English, you would be well advised to use the language that most of the people listening expect to hear.

    It's a happy medium between being perceived as a peevologist and what is often perceived as being just as nutball by deliberately using structures that people don't like.

    There's nothing cowardly about trying to communicate in the language of your audience.

  4. Alan Palmer said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 5:34 am

    I sometimes feel like a traitor to the "cause" by recasting sentences that/which I've written in an attempt to keep peevologists quiet. Every now and then I'll miss something, though …

    Although the really rabid prescriptivists are in a tiny minority, I try to write so that the piece is easily and immediately comprehensible by all. If someone is distracted by what is perceived as an error some of this is lost.

  5. Stephen Jones said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 5:38 am

    @David: You're writing nonsense, David. Failed to immediately report IS Standard English, in all geographical variants of the language, and most of the people listening wouldn't dream of objecting to it. The audience of the BBC expect to hear Standard English; what you want is for them to get some altered version of it that pleases a small minority of local nutballs.

  6. Graeme said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 5:59 am

    "failed immediately to report" sounds v clunky to this Australian ear.
    But the meaning was clear. Perhaps it's because I had a legal education, but I read the sentence as invoking a legal (or ethical) obligation to report as immediately as was practical. The failure and the non-reporting are the same omission; both happened immediately in that sense of relatively/practically immediately.

    What's wrong with "failed to report immediately an accident in which he drove …"?

  7. David said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 6:04 am

    My refusal to enter into an argument with you Stephen (who are apparently rather good at this sort of thing) is a great example of my tendency to avoid conflict.

    Which probably also explains why I'm not a good writer. But I'm sure that a lot of people do like me and rewrite phrases just to avoid the whole prescriptivism/descriptivism debate. I know I very rarely use split infinitives in speech just because I know that doing so might be start a (rather tedious) debate.

  8. J. Goard said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 6:13 am

    Not that I would nod, let alone genuflect, to prescriptivists, but regarding your clarification, what's wrong with a "discontinuous constituent" (something of a misnomer, to my take on construction grammar)?

    "he failed to report an accident immediately in which he drove off a bridge and his female companion drowned"

    This very common construction often seems to be the only way to go, as in:

    "Use something today that you have been saving for tomorrow."

    Where else could you put "today" without having a real clunker on your hands?

    [Do I have to repeat myself? Do I have to repeat myself?? Once again: I'm not saying that you never have a choice, and I'm not saying the split infinitive is always the right choice to make (though I will say that "report an accident immediately in which..." is the worst proposal yet for which choice to make!). All I'm saying that, squirm though you may, it is fairly common for placing an adverb between infinitival to and the following plain-form verb to be not just grammatical (it is always grammatical), but also the best stylistic choice. —GKP]

  9. David Crosbie said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 6:36 am

    I was so startled by this dreadful sentence that, quite independently, I started a thread on the BBC's Word of Mouth Message Board http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbradio4/F2766781?thread=6877956

    I didn't remember the end of the sentence, so allowed for the alternative 'failed to summon help immediately. Having seen the snag, I suggest that the bulletin writer could have used "he failed to report immediately an accident in which he drove off a bridge and his female companion drowned".

    Could have, but probably shouldn't have. Bulletins are written (if, indeed they are written) to be delivered as speech. A skilled newsreader could deliver this revision with clarity, but it wouldn't be nearly as easy to deliver as GK's version with an appropriate 'split'.

  10. Stephen Jones said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 7:37 am

    But I'm sure that a lot of people do like me and rewrite phrases just to avoid the whole prescriptivism/descriptivism debate. I know I very rarely use split infinitives in speech just because I know that doing so might be start a (rather tedious) debate.

    I suspect you simply think you don't. Even the people that write the prescriptivist rules often routinely flout them in their own writing (even on occasions on the same page).

    One thing the prescriptivists do have right is their claim that the vast majority of the population couldn't give a monkey's toss for their rules. Accordingly you needn't fear offending the vast majority of your audience by ignoring the shibboleth; most of them won't even notice.

    And has it never occurred to you what would happen if everybody followed your advice? They would have to invent an entirely new set of shibboleths. The complaints of the prescriptivists are not based on anything inherent to the language. They are the result of a compulsive need to find grounds for an imagined superiority.

  11. Faldone said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 9:57 am

    I would say that David's rewrite would be the wise choice if you knew that some copy-editor was going to hack up your original line after it got out of your control and it would be your reputation that would suffer for the resulting clunky and incomprehensible copy. Unfortunately David's rewrite also has a split verb "… didn't immediately report …" that might get similarly hacked into some infelicitous garbage by the nut-job copy-editor.

  12. wally said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    And I woke up this morning to NPR telling me that "all former living Presidents" would attend services for Kennedy. Hmm, if they were formerly living …

  13. Ellen said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    What's wrong with "failed to report immediately an accident in which he drove …"?

    It sounds bad. In my opinion anyway, which I suspect I'm not alone in.

  14. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    @Steven Jones

    But I'm sure that a lot of people do like me and rewrite phrases just to avoid the whole prescriptivism/descriptivism debate.

    Steven, I like you very much, but I'm not going to rewrite any phrases, so there!

    Dan

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 10:17 am

    Whoops! Sorry, Steven, I didn't notice that your message was a two-cushion shot. It's David that I really do like. Nice chap!

    Dan

  16. Simon Spero said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Geoff is right, except for the hypothetical implying that that his companion drowned immediately.

    (1a)Kennedy failed immediately to attempt to rescue Mary Jo (#but tried later).
    (1b)Kennedy immediately failed to attempt to rescue Mary Jo (#but tried later).
    (1c)The defective O-ring failed immediately.

    (2) Kennedy failed to immediately attempt to rescue Mary Jo (but tried later).

  17. acilius said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    "Immediately failed" might not have been the intended meaning, but it does seem to capture the suspicion that hung over Senator Kennedy for the last 40 years of his life. When the accident came up in the press (as it did virtually every time Senator Kennedy was in the news,) reports always dwelt on his initial responses. It seemed that the ineffaceable blot his critics found on the senator's escutcheon was to be found in his reflexes. So a great deal of attention focused on the senator's actions in the first seconds after he felt water flooding into his nose, seconds when it appears that he panicked and shoved Ms Kopechne out of the way. Some think that a braver man would have suppressed that panic and rescued his passenger. "Immediate failure" would seem to be a fair summary of that event.

  18. Ellen said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    Although this isn't at all on topic as far as why this is posted here on Language log, still, it seems appropriate to ask. Acilius, where do you get the information that he supposedly panicked and pushed her out of the way? From what I'm reading, he and her were the only ones there, so we only have his word on such things. Your wording seems to imply some way to know rather specifically what happened besides from Senator Kennedy's own reports.

  19. Kate G said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    I think this sentence started out as "failed to report an accident …" and someone fact checking said hey he did report it, just not immediately, so then tried shoehorning the word into various places in the sentence, none of which really work. That's when they should have reworded. Not to avoid messing with silly copywriter rules, but in reaction to the real objection by the fact checker, instead of just sticking in a weasel word.

  20. Barrie England said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

    I’m a little surprised to find one of the distinguished authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ talking about split infinitives at all. They say on page 51 that ‘on our account imperative, subjunctive, and infinitival are clause constructions, not inflectional forms of the verb’. Commenting on the sentence ‘I advise you to take great care’ they say that ‘to’ is ‘a VP subordinator, not part of the verb’. If ‘to’ is not part of the verb, there is nothing to split.

  21. acilius said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    @Ellen: When the senator was running for president in 1980, news outlets were full of analysis of the position in which the car was found, how it was possible for the senator to get out but not for Ms Kopechne, etc etc. The alleged shove was a major focus of that analysis, and it continues to fascinate Kennedy-haters. During the 1980 presidential campaign, ABC-TV went so far as to put an account of the accident on its magazine show 20/20 complete with a series of drawings, which illustrated almost to the point of animation what the shove would have looked like. I thought then that it was journalism at its sleaziest.

    Of course the last thing I would want to do is to start an argument about Chappaquiddick. My point is that while "failed immediately" may bring in "interference from a distracting and unintended meaning," that meaning is strangely apt. Many of the people most fixated on the accident at Chappaquiddick are fixed precisely on the senator's reflexes.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    @Barrie: As far as I know, there's no other name for this construction.

    @Kate G: I don't see anything wrong with "failed to immediately report", but I agree that there were better options. He "delayed X hours in reporting" would be more informative.

    Am I the only who notices adverbs moving before main verbs (after auxiliaries) that used to go after main verbs?

    AltaVista counts, for whatever they're worth:

    "can serve you better": 991,000
    "can better serve you": 829,000

    "Can serve you better" sounds more natural to me. It might be time for a peeve, except that I have more than enough.

  23. peter said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    acilius said (August 28, 2009 @ 12:09 pm)

    "Some think that a braver man would have suppressed that panic and rescued his passenger."

    An adult relative of mine unintentionally drove a car off a ferry into a deep river in an accident in which she was ultimately rescued alive from the vehicle, but her female passenger not. As her car sank, my relative sat, panic-stricken, unable to take any action or do anything or say anything, and her passenger likewise. I think there are very few people who can predict, precisely, how they will behave in such extreme conditions, and certainly none of us without experience of similar circumstances.

  24. Liz said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

    I'm new here, I don't know what the rules are, so I'm sorry if I'm about to put my foot in it!
    I heard the Radio 4 piece and it really grated. I think this "not splitting the infinitive at any cost" thing is quite a recent policy.

    The only two European languages where it is possible to split an infinitive are English and Dutch. The Dutch have no concept that it might be inadmissible to split an infinitive and they just go right ahead and do it. English is a Germanic language shoehorned into a latinate grammar, so we sit around discussing when or if it might possibly be permissible. Of course you can't split a Latin infinitive, unless you say something along the lines of a-blumming-mare (for amare – to love) , and of course that would be slang. If you use a non-latinate grammar there isn't any reason why you might not be able to say "failed to immediately report…." . And there isn't any reason to use a latinate grammar that no one under 50 understands any more. Grammar isn't a religion, it's just a set of rules and rules change over time.

  25. Stephen Jones said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

    The point about not splitting the infinitive is that there is nobody who actually defends the rule. You do get the odd person bringing up the argument that they do it not to offend those who believe in it, but you'll have a hard job to find anybody who does.

    It's normal use by prescriptivists is to show how open minded and liberal they are. 'No, I don't follow rules blindly; I have no objection to splitting infinitive. It's only the important rules I'm a stickler for.'

    This defense of course has alway seemed to me to be akin to, "It's a total lie I disembowel new-born babies and eat them alive; I make a distinct point of cooking them first."

  26. acilius said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 6:55 pm

    @Peter: Well, of course. Which is why it has always struck me as gruesome that so many people do focus on the senator's alleged "immediate failure."

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    @Liz: The Wikipedia article says split infinitives occur in Swedish and that they could occur in German (with zu followed by an adverb, I take it) but never do. I know nothing about this myself. It also mentions French constructions such as Je décide de ne pas faire quelquechose. I'll leave it to others to say whether the separation of de from faire is relevant. (The Wikip article also has some comments, which I wrote most of and think are true, on the "argument from classical languages".)

    My graduate adviser wouldn't let me split infinitives in academic writing, not because some people would object, but because it was wrong. I don't know whether he ever took Latin, but he was over 50 at the time ('80s). I wouldn't call it cowardice, as Geoffrey Pullum said above about not splitting infinitives in a different context, that there were no split infinitives in my dissertation.

    @Stephen Jones: I didn't feel that my adviser had disemboweled a baby.

  28. mollymooly said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    In print, "he failed immediately to report an accident" undoubtedly looks clunky and reads ambiguously.
    In speech, a nuance of prosody –not representable via punctuation– could determine whether "immediately" binds to the previous or subsequent constituent. That takes care of the ambiguity.
    However, the clunkiness remains. A century or two ago, there existed an artificial, elevated, florid style of declamatory oratory, which was an essential mark of cultivated education. This style has become entirely obsolete. I think the ostentatious avoidance of split infinitives is one of the marks of this style. There was never anything natural about the style, so it's understandable that the BBC's use of one of its zombie rules sticks out like a sore thumb.

  29. Barrie England said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

    @Jerry: An infinitival clause construction?

  30. Stephen Jones said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    @Stephen Jones: I didn't feel that my adviser had disemboweled a baby.

    It's a slippery slope.

    What subject was your graduate adviser advising you in? I'm really surprised he survived to 50+ without being told where he could stick his rule. Evidently the quality of students has been steadily declining.

  31. Nicholas Lawrence said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: "An adverb between 'to' and a plain-form verb"?
    I've seen 'zu nicht tun" in Germany, but I think it's non-standard. 'À ne pas faire' exactly parallels 'to not do', and is of course standard. Latin is completely irrelevant, because (classical) Latin infinitives were never preceded by ad or de; and, of course, because what's one word in one language is never a guide to what's 'splittable' in another. (Res publica was splittable in Latin, but ReCzechpublic is not English.) I'd love to know why the completely bogus 'justification' from Latin still gets trotted out, and whether there's a documented instance of a prescriptivist advancing Latin as a 'reason' for the shibboleth.

  32. Liz said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

    @Jerry Friedman. Thanks, that's very interesting. Can it still be a split infinitive when the "to" part isn't part of the infinitive? In the French example you give, the infinitive is "faire", not "de faire". "De" belongs with "décider". "Décider de" "to decided to".And "zu" isn't considered part of the infinitive in German either as far as I remember.

    @Nicholas Lawrence. We were taught, back in the day (in the UK), not to split infinitives because you couldn't split them in Latin, therefore it wasn't good style. I do not know whether this comes straight from Latin, or is a justification for the 17th century high style. But this is precisely why the split infinitive shibboleth is such a shibboleth, and not irrelevant at all.

    @Stephen Jones Perhaps no one does defend the rule any more, but this was not always the case. For my uncle, who graduated in English from Oxford in the 1930's, it was a matter of life and death.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 12:51 am

    @Stephen Jones: I like your slippery-slope argument. People think it's okay to forbid their students to split infinitives, but then they start disemboweling babies, and before they know it, they're Yankees fans?

    I went to grad school in physics. I don't know whether anyone had told my adviser where he could stick his shibboleth, but if someone had, he didn't stick it there. For me it was a matter of priorities. My thesis did include objections to a paper my adviser had recently published, but it didn't include any split infinitives.

    Considering my adviser's previous students, I can't argue with you that I'm evidence for a decline in quality, but I think we need more data before we can say it's been steady.

    @Liz: I believe you about what your teachers said, but like Nicholas Lawrence, I'd be interested in anything documented.

    I'll accept that de in de ne pas faire isn't part of the infinitive in French, but that leaves the question of whether "to" is in English. I'll take Barrie England's word (above) that in the Cambridge grammar of the English Language, it's not considered part of the infinitive.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 12:58 am

    @Barrie England: I think you're suggesting that "infinitival clause construction" would be a better name. However, I think some of us need a name for the "to [something] verb" construction. For one thing, it appeared in Middle English, became rare in the 15th through 17th centuries, and then reappeared in the 18th and kept increasing. For another, there are people's idiolects where it doesn't appear, and there are lots of people like me who rarely put negatives in that spot—I usually say, "I told you not to do that." but many of my students say, "I told you to not do that." So this specific construction is of some interest, to some people.

  35. Barrie England said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 3:46 am

    @Jerry. The term is not my own, but Pullum and Huddleston’s. Why should it not apply both to ‘I told you not to do that’ and ‘I told you to not do that’? Is it not simply a special case of the placing of the adverb?

  36. Stephen Jones said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 4:11 am

    Jerry, I can understand a physics student deciding to humour his graduate advisor; I thought for one horrible moment you might have been doing your thesis in English or linguistics. Even so it is a fairly rare obsession. As I said most prescriptivists use the 'split infinitive' as an example of a rule they don't follow. Presumably your graduate advisor had a report writing class when he was an undergraduate with somebody who actually followed it, which was why he was peddling the nonsense thirty years later. Still a pity nobody pointed out how wrong he was. But as I said, there is evidence that students have become more and more conformist over the last thirty-five years.

  37. Stan Carey said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    "My first three books [...] mark the beginning of this development, for it was only as I was writing them that I began systematically to explore childhood, including my own."

    From Alice Miller's introduction to “The Drama of Being a Child”. Presumably it was the exploration that was systematic, not the beginning.

    And a couple of examples of a different type, but still characterised by awkward avoidance of the split infinitive:

    "Berkeley, Wordsworth, Shelley are representative of the intuitive refusal seriously to accept the abstract materialism of science." – Alfred North Whitehead, "Science and the Modern World".

    "It is possible, successfully to resist innovation, is it?" – Edwin Newman, in an interview with Marshall McLuhan on 'Speaking Freely'.

  38. michael farris said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    "My graduate adviser wouldn't let me split infinitives in academic writing, not because some people would object, but because it was wrong."

    But it's not wrong by any reasonable standard.
    "He failed to immediately report X" is 100 % perfectly grammatical English. There's nothing wrong with it and there's no way to make a convincing argument (using the same criteria that linguists use) that there is. It is by far the most natural (and elegant) formulation of the intended proposition.

    Yes, it's possible to put too much stuff between 'to' and a verb:

    * I decided yesterday to finally before I was completely overcome by guilt and remorse confess.

    I'ts possible to put a wrong element betweent the two:

    * I wanted to him ask if it was true.

    But generally "to (derived adverb) VERB" is perfect English usage. Not a thing wrong with it at all.

  39. Barrie England said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    @Jerry: Furthermore, if 'to' is part of the infinitive, how come it's not allowed after a modal verb?

    @Michael: I'd go further, and say that a word other than 'wrong' is required to describe any grammatical feature in the speech or writing of a native speaker on which we wish to comment.

  40. peter said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    Inserting words between the component parts of a so-called infinitive is not only not wrong, not unacceptable, and not uncommon in English usage, sometimes it is even necessary. As any string player can confirm, learning rapidly to play the violin is something very different from learning to rapidly play the violin.

  41. Barrie England said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 3:41 am

    @Peter. Quite right. Even 'learning to play the violin rapidly' would leave an ambiguity.

  42. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    Sorry to be unclear about my adviser. When I said he wouldn't let me split infinitives "because it was wrong", that was supposed to be a short way of saying, "because he thought it was wrong". I don't think there's anything wrong with split infinitives, though as I said, I seldom put "not" or "never" between "to" and the verb (and my speech was like that long before I ever heard of a prescription on the subject).

    @Stephen: I agree that the better class of prescriptivists, the ones whose books are well known, generally don't forbid split infinitives. However, my data-free impression is that a lot of teachers used to. I don't know where my adviser picked up that "rule", but it could have been anywhere from elementary school on. (I haven't run across classes in report writing, though.)

    @Barrie: Indeed both "not to do it" and "to not do it" are the same kind of thing and differ only in adverb placement. I'm not criticizing anyone for covering both with one term (especially since I've never studied linguistics). I'm suggesting that a more specific term is useful to discuss both the shibboleth against "to not do it" and that form's strange history of appearance, disappearance, and reappearance, for those who are interested in such details.

    I'm certainly not arguing about terminology or whether "to" is (rather than "can be regarded as, in a way that accounts for the facts") part of some infinitives.

  43. Barrie England said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    @Jerry. I think giving it a name merely adds a spurious credibility to those who attempt, against all the evidence, to defend it.

  44. Gordibhoy said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

    I blame Star Trek for this. I was 11 when the series first aired here (UK). I didn't know what a split infinitive was until the argument started. Goodness knows, we didn't think anything odd here about a white man kissing a black woman, but we sure as hell had people kicking off about whether to boldly go, or go boldly, or even boldly to go. I love the language, and I love the attitude I see from you guys about how it should be written. Keep on keeping on!
    By the way I just LOVE the posts where folk have decided to weigh in with irrelevant fact and speculation about what actually happened.
    Mary Jo RIP Teddy K RIP
    Cheers,
    Gordibhoy

  45. Stephen Jones said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    However, my data-free impression is that a lot of teachers used to

    'used to' is probably the key, as Liz has suggested. Even if no high school teacher has recommended the rule since the 60s there will still be their students around who believe the rule is valid.

  46. Laurent C said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 5:19 am

    I know this isn't about French, but in French you can split an infinitive, at least a past infinitive. You can say for instance "J'avoue n'avoir toujours pas compris" (It would sort of mean "I confess I still haven't understood") where avoir compris is the past infinitive of verb comprendre.

    (Present infinitives are one word, so you can't split them).

  47. Barrie England said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    Wouldn’t ‘I confess I still haven't understood’ be in French ‘J’avoue que je n’ai toujours pas compris’? The translation of ‘J'avoue n'avoir toujours pas compris’ would surely be ‘I confess to still not having understood’.

  48. Tikhon said,

    December 12, 2009 @ 5:18 am

    There is no construction more Classical in contemporary English than the split infinitive. Where else is word order so precise in the midst of freedom? Anyone who has observed the placement of adjectives and genitives in Greek and Latin recognizes immediately the ancient roots of the split infinitive.

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