Heaping of catmummies considered harmful

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This morning, “Robert” added a comment to a Language Log post from April 30, “Books more loved than looked in“. He began:

Just found your website, after hearing one of you discuss it on BBC Radio 4. I’m very glad to have discovered it, because it looks like good fun.

I tend to avoid split infinitives in formal prose, because most, if not all, of my models from the last 200 years avoid them. It’s a stylistic preference, based on good authority; but I was happy to find on your site confirmation of my suspicion that there wasn’t an actual *rule* against the split infinitive.

We’re glad to be of service. Perhaps I can help even more, by raising some doubts in your mind about the quality of the “authority” behind your stylistic preference.

Here’s what the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) says about split infinitives (p. 581):

Prescriptive condemnation of the ‘split infinitive’ did not arise until the second half of the nineteenth century. The construction can be found in the literature of the preceding several hundred years, but it became more popular in English writing as the nineteenth century went on, and the adoption of the rule in prescriptive grammar reflected disapproval of this change. No reason was ever given as to why the construction was supposedly objectionable, however.

The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage (MWCDEU) adds this observation:

Sometime between Alford 1866 and the end of the 19th century, the split infinitive seems to have established itself in that subculture of usage existing in the popular press and in folk belief. […]

Critical opinion as expressed in usage books has generally settled on a wary compromise. The commentators recognize that there is nothing grammatically wrong with the split infinitive, but they are loath to abandon a subject that is so dear to the public at large. Therefore, they tell us to avoid split infinitives except when splitting one improves clarity.

Robert ends his comment with a question:

For avoiding the split infinitive, there’s a massive literary authority. But what I can’t understand is this thing about sentences ending in a preposition (I remember C. S. Lewis railing against this mythical rule). George Eliot’s novels, for instance, are full of sentences [ending] with prepositions, and I know of no finer prose stylist. So where did this ridiculous ‘rule’ come from?

The prejudice against all sentence-final prepositions is an ignorant generalization of an originally ill-founded objection to “preposition stranding” in relative clauses. The original ill-founded objection began as part of a campaign by John Dryden to promote himself as superior, on linguistic grounds, to more primitive writers like William Shakespeare — for details, see “An internet pilgrim’s guide to stranded prepositions“, 4/11/2004; and “Hot Dryden on Jonson action“, 5/1/2007. I don’t know who initiated the ignorant generalization of this prejudice to all sentence-final prepositions.

But let’s get back to those infinitives. Will it change your opinion to read this passage from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), which is relevant both in form and in content?

To pound the objects of sentiment into small dust, yet keep sentiment alive and active, was something like the famous recipe for making cannon—to first take a round hole and then enclose it with iron; whatever you do keeping fast hold of your round hole. Yet how distinguish what our will may wisely save in its completeness, from the heaping of catmummies and the expensive cult of enshrined putrefactions? [emphasis added]

On the theory that examples from great writers might convince you to cast off this made-up prescriptive prejudice, here is a handful of other random examples, from the thousands that might be produced. We start with Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851):

Do you know, gentlemen, that the digestive organs of the whale are so inscrutably constructed by Divine Providence, that it is quite impossible for him to completely digest even a man’s arm?

And now Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad (1869)

We saw Danté’s tomb in that church, also, but we were glad to know that his body was not in it; that the ungrateful city that had exiled him and persecuted him would give much to have it there, but need not hope to ever secure that high honor to herself.

From Thomas Hardy, Return of the Native (1878):

The sun was shining directly upon the window-blind, and at his first glance thitherward a sharp pain obliged him to quickly close his eyelids.

Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” (1889):

A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades. His characters have a kind of fervent fiery-coloured existence. They dominate us, and defy scepticism. One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempré. It is a grief from which I have never been able to completely rid myself.

And from his “The critic as artist”:

The critic, then, being limited to the subjective form, will necessarily be less able to fully express himself than the artist, who has always at his disposal the forms that are impersonal and objective.

Examples abound in poetry as well. Thus Bryon, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1810):

217 To sit on rocks—to muse o’er flood and fell—
218 To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,
219 Where things that own not Man’s dominion dwell,
220 And mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been;
221 To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
222 With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
223 Alone o’er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
224 This is not Solitude—’tis but to hold
225 Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.

Robert Browning, Pippa Passes (1841)

Now, one thing I should like to really know:
How near I ever might approach all these
I only fancied being, this long day:
—Approach, I mean, so as to touch them, so
As to . . . in some way . . . move them—if you please,
Do good or evil to them some slight way.

(Ironically, these lines immediately follow the famous “twat” passage.) Another shot of Browning, from Fra Lippo Lippi (1855):

You should not take a fellow eight years old
And make him swear to never kiss the girls.

And a splash of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from Aurora Leigh (1856):

For me I’m sworn to never trust a man—
At least with letters.

Walt Whitman, “Sands at Seventy” (1889):

To get the final lilt of songs,
To penetrate the inmost lore of poets—to know the mighty ones,
Job, Homer, Eschylus, Dante, Shakspere, Tennyson, Emerson;
To diagnose the shifting-delicate tints of love and pride and doubt—to truly understand,
To encompass these, the last keen faculty and entrance-price,
Old age, and what it brings from all its past experience.

W.H. Auden, “Ischia” (1948-1957):

… ceasing to think
of a way to get on, we
learn to simply wander about

by twisting paths which at any moment reveal
some vista as an absolute goal

By all means continue to avoid split infinitives, if that’s your preference. But it’s not accurate to cite “massive literary authority” for this particular heaping of catmummies.



38 Comments

  1. Mark P said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 10:37 am

    I wonder if the prescriptivists simply read over the many counterexamples without noticing them because they sound so natural.

  2. Nik Berry said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 10:38 am

    Back in the UK I had a colleague who was driven to apoplexy by a slogan for some laundry detergent – ‘To really, really, double deep-down clean”

  3. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 10:49 am

    I won’t necessarily go out of my way to split an infinitive, but I will go out of my way to not split one where the result of not splitting will be a kind of pedantic overcorrection. In other words, cases where one can tell that the author has shifted an adverb in order to avoid the dreaded split infinitive. You see a kind of fussiness in some writers who have over-absorbed certain prescriptions. I was noticing this on re-reading some short-stories by William Carlos Williams a few months ago.

  4. Ransom said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 11:00 am

    Speaking of sentence-final prepositions, today’s entry in the Futility Closet:
    To and Fro

    I lately lost a preposition;
    It hid, I thought, beneath my chair
    And angrily I cried, “Perdition!
    Up from out of under there.”

    Correctness is my vade mecum,
    And straggling phrases I abhor,
    And yet I wondered, “What should he come
    Up from out of under for?”

    – Morris Bishop

  5. Roderick Glossop said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 11:16 am

    Given that Robert said he tends to avoid split infinitives, and also said that there’s a massive literary authority for avoiding splitting them, it seems quite discourteous for you to pointedly dig up isolated examples of split infinitives from a number of writers and file your findings under “Prescriptivist Poppycock”.

    He did not say that he never uses a split infinitive; nor did he once claim that his literary idols never split one. To deliberately misread what the man posted in order to doggedly make a point about prescriptivism strikes me as rather childish.

    (Infinitives split on purpose, before you attempt to call me up on them.)

  6. Peter said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    I’ve long thought that the absurdity of the prohibition against split infinitives is shown in examples such as these:

    (1) I wanted to learn to ride quickly.
    (2) I wanted to learn to quickly ride.
    (3) I wanted to learn quickly to ride.
    (4) I wanted to quickly learn to ride.
    (5) I wanted quickly to learn to ride.

    Not being a linguist, I would welcome a linguistic analysis of these or similar examples.

  7. John Cowan said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 11:28 am

    It’s useless to pile up counterexamples from great writers, for prescriptivists will just reply either “That’s an exception” or “That’s an error on the part of the great writer” (a third possible reply “That is not a great writer at all”).

    People who want to have rules will have them, and will (due to the viral nature of the rules) insist on others following them too. It’s quite truly and literally a religious dispute.

  8. Roderick Glossop said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 11:32 am

    John – is that “literally” in the generally understood sense of “not literally at all”? Just wondered.

  9. Mark Liberman said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 11:33 am

    Roderick Glossop: Given that Robert said he tends to avoid split infinitives, and also said that there’s a massive literary authority for avoiding splitting them, it seems quite discourteous for you to pointedly dig up isolated examples of split infinitives from a number of writers and file your findings under “Prescriptivist Poppycock”.

    John Cowan: It’s useless to pile up counterexamples from great writers, for prescriptivists will just reply either “That’s an exception” or “That’s an error on the part of the great writer”.

    The “poppycock” is not attributed to Robert, but to those usage authorities, from Alford 1866 forwards, who recommend against split infinitives.

    And Robert’s “massive literary authority” is simply his subjective summary of how he believes that writers he admires have used the English language — thus he cites the existence of sentence-final prepositions in George Eliot as evidence that the prejudice against them is unfounded. It therefore seems entirely in order to point out that George Eliot also used split infinitives, and that many other admirable writers did likewise. While some people are certainly impervious to argument, Robert struck me as someone who is willing to change his mind on the basis of evidence.

    In this case, as far as I know, those who object to splitting infinitives don’t in general offer evidence of any sort at all, other than quotations from self-appointed usage authorities — no statistics showing that great writers avoid them, no results of experiments showing that split infinitives are hard for readers to understand, rarely even any examples where a split infinitive is stylistically awkward.

    So I don’t think that we should abandon the Roberts of this world to Alford and his followers.

  10. Doug Sundseth said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 11:33 am

    Three points:

    1) As an evolving language, I don’t see any reason that the English couldn’t move toward a prohibition of split infinitives. If you take that view, it seems to me that examples from “the last 200 years” would not necessarily be the right metric, though.

    2) If English is moving in that direction, it will move without me. I find splitting to often result in clearer prose.*

    3) “…here is a handful of other random examples….” For me, “handful” is very like “number” in this usage and I would have used “are” — it is the examples that dominate the meaning, not the handful. (Note: Observation, not prescription. 8-)

    * Yes, that was a bit contrived, but there you go.

  11. Roderick Glossop said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 11:40 am

    Mark Liberman: In contrast, as far as I know, those who object to splitting infinitives have never offered evidence of any sort at all, other than quotations from self-appointed usage authorities — no statistics showing that great writers avoid them, no results of experiments showing that split infinitives are hard for readers to understand, rarely even any examples where a split infinitive is stylistically awkward

    And yet you have provided no statistics on your part to show that great writers do not avoid them. Again, there is a difference between the word “avoid” and the phrase “never use”.

    Now, if you want to use your concordance or your database (or whatever tool it is that you use to truffle out your selective questions) to categorically show that these writers tend to split and not to split in equal measure, that might serve some useful purpose. As it is, these are not statistics, they are selectively quotations used for rhetorical effect. Not exactly scientific.

  12. Roderick Glossop said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 11:41 am

    That should, of course, have said selective quotations.

  13. Peter said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 11:44 am

    And I forgot to add:

    (6) I wanted to quickly learn to slowly ride.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

    Roderick Glossop: Now, if you want to […] categorically show that these writers tend to split and not to split in equal measure, that might serve some useful purpose.

    You seem to misunderstand the problem. Why should anyone “split and not split in equal measure”? That would be like expecting writers to use passive and active “in equal measure”. Writers split when it suits them, and don’t split when it doesn’t. I don’t know how to formulate that hypothesis so that it would be subject to test on the basis of corpus statistics, and I bet that you don’t either.

    The easiest hypothesis to test is that split infinitives are ungrammatical in English. That’s clearly false. Another testable hypothesis is that split infinitives, though grammatical, are so stylistically problematic that competent writers avoid them at all costs. That’s also clearly false — all of the examples that I cited could easily have been re-written to avoid the split infinitives.

    After that, there’s a penumbra of hypotheses that are harder and harder to test. Which one do you support?

    One that makes sense is Curme’s claim (cited by Geoff Pullum in the next post) that great writers use split infinitives more often than minor writers, “who avoid it as they fear criticism” (or perhaps because they’re less able to stand up to copy editors). Given a suitable list of great and minor writers, we could test this. But in any case, the ball is in the other court — given that the prejudice against split infinitives has never been suported by a coherent argument, much less any empirical evidence, the provision of well-written counterexamples from respected writers is as far as it seems appropriate to go in response.

  15. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

    Mark P: “I wonder if the prescriptivists simply read over the many counterexamples without noticing them because they sound so natural.”

    Almost surely the case, from my experience in talking to usage critics over the years; the critics miss many instances of usages they deprecate. In fact, as we’ve pointed out many times on Language Log, the critics miss some instances in their own writing. Not really surprising.

  16. Maria said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    I love reading these discussions in Language Log, but I’m always left with a similar question… what is a speaker/writer of English as a second language to do? I sometimes find that a sentence would sound better with a split infinitive, but I can’t bring myself to write it, to avoid clashing with prescriptivist native speakers. I wish I could include a link to LL in every paper.

  17. Robert said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 1:56 pm

    Thanks for the detailed response, and especially for finding those examples. It would be interesting to see relatively how often each of these authors chooses to split an infinitive, and how often each makes a point of avoiding one.*

    Roderick’s right: I’m quite happy to split the odd infinitive and you certainly won’t catch me complaining if someone else does. But maybe I ought to introduce a few more to my own writing!

    Thanks again.

    *Though I imagine it’s often hard, or even impossible, to tell when an author is consciously avoiding splitting an infinitive.

  18. Orbis P. said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

    Since Doug offers his opinion on the verb agreement with “handful of examples”, I feel emboldened to say that his own sentence “As an evolving language, I don’t see any reason that the English couldn’t move toward a prohibition of split infinitives” makes it sound as if Doug were claiming to be himself an evolving language. Muphry’s Law?

    And Maria, as another speaker of English who first learned one or two others in his infancy and youth, I approach questions of usage with a sense of bravado, knowing that most of my detractors have never studied English analytically, never had a grammar class, and can’t tell a homonym from hominy. Bring it on, native speakers! :)

  19. Bryn LaFollette said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

    Roderick Glossop: Again, there is a difference between the word “avoid” and the phrase “never use”.

    When a prescriptive rule is qualified with simply “avoid”, and there are no examples provided to demonstrate the instances in which it is clearly better to do so (and none seem to have been provided by anyone here so far where the non-split alternative has been argued to be semantically equivalent and more desirable). It seems that this stylistic practice is being advocated based on some sort of inherent or self-evident merit that I’m simply not able to see. Counter-examples have been found (even if they’re argued to be “isolated” ones). Why can’t the proponents of the practice point to this over-whelming literary support with some examples?

    Also, in talking about “the infinitive” it seems like we’re distracting from the fact that this is a periphrastic construction and not an inflected single word. It seems like there is no reason why this would be considered a seperate argument from that of “preposition stranding” and yet the proponents seem to want to draw some distinction between these constructions. Is there any objective syntactic reason for why the words which make up the infinitive construction in English would even be considered to constitute a single coherent unit any more closely bound together than the verb and its complements? I’ve never heard of anyone feeling the need to vociferously complain of splitting a verb from its complement with an adverb, and yet I’d say given the following examples, I’d only avoid the last:

    1. to thoroughly investigate the matter
    2. to investigate the matter thoroughly
    3. to investigate thoroughly the matter

    I don’t know if it’s historically accurate or not, but I had been under the impression that these prescriptions of usage concerning prepositions and infinitives only came about as part of an attempt to try to make English usage more in line with Latin, which was long perceived as superior to English in prior centuries, and in which you do not split up infinitives because an infinitive construction in Latin is a single inflected word. Likewise, most of the meanings that would be expressed in English using prepositional phrases would normally be expressed in Latin using specific declensional forms of a single word and so again would not ever be splitable. Obviously it’s useful to be able to refer to the infinitive construction in English, but in simply referring to this sequence of seperate words as “the infinitive”, I fear we’re giving credence to a monolithic view of the thing which has never existed outside of the labelling used to discuss. And, thereby, giving weight to these arguments about “splitting” it.

  20. Trevor Stone said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

    To roughly quote Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct,
    The prohibition against split infinitives arose when grammar books became very popular in England. Many of them were based on making English grammar closer to Latin, in which it is impossible to split an infinitive.

    If I were to quickly concoct a rule of thumb, it would be:
    Split an infinitive if you would precede the conjugated verb with an adverb in an equivalent sentence.
    So I would use “To boldly travel the galaxy” because I would also use “He boldly traveled the galaxy.” However, I would probably use “To slip quietly into the night” because I would also use “He slipped quietly into the night.” As a native speaker from the western U.S., split infinitives sound perfectly natural.

  21. Nathan Myers said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

    I hope it will not be too digressive to mention Prof. Liberman’s previous posting on “considered harmful”.

  22. dr pepper said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

    I have long felt that what we call an infinitive in english isn’t really an infinitive anyway, just a class of constructions that take the preposition “to”.

  23. dr pepper said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

    Btw: the wrath of Amon-Ra will consume anyone who heaps catmummies without the proper ceremonies.

  24. Chris Kern said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

    I feel emboldened to say that his own sentence “As an evolving language, I don’t see any reason that the English couldn’t move toward a prohibition of split infinitives” makes it sound as if Doug were claiming to be himself an evolving language.

    Only if you deliberately misinterpret the sentence; I don’t think the meaning is unclear at all.

  25. Stephen said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

    Here’s the quotation from Lewis:

    The perfect example of an influence in this field is that exercised on our prose by Dryden and his contemporaries (Tillotson and the like). You remember that he went all through the Essay of Dramatick Poesie and altered every sentence that ended with a preposition. This is, I say, a perfect example of Influence. No one can pretend that this curious taboo was inherent in the genius of the language and would have developed even without the action of Dryden and his fellow Gallicists. On the contrary, it is so alien from the language that it has never penetrated into the conversation of even the worst prigs, and serves no purpose but to increase those little bunches of unemphatic monosyllables that English was already prone to. On the other hand, it has so established itself in our formal style that thousands obey it unconsciously. It is, very precisely, a thing that prompts us to write in a certain way: even I, who detest it for a frenchified schoolroom superstition, often feel it plucking at my elbow. (C.S. Lewis, “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version,” Selected Literary Essays, Cambridge, 1969.)

  26. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

    Bryn LaFollette: “I’ve never heard of anyone feeling the need to vociferously complain of splitting a verb from its complement with an adverb…”

    Not exactly that, but there are the cases I reported on in:

    AZ, 5/10/08: Contamination:
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=130A

    And there was an earlier posting about, among other things, a genuine constraint against [certain sorts of] adverbials intervening between a verb and its direct object:

    AZ, 5/2/08: Nonintervention:
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=114

  27. Bryn LaFollette said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 8:02 pm

    Thanks for the links! I now recall having previously read the Nonintervention posting about English’s *V+X+DO constraint (as you very nicely described it), and this is exactly the characteristic of English that is as true a grammatical constraint on the syntax of the language as the whole “split infinitive” debacle isn’t. The thing I find interesting about this, and the point I was trying to make above, was that this condition of English isn’t something that language “Guardians” ever talk about (or are possibly even aware of). I guessing this is simply because it’s a genuine rule of English that as a native speaker one has an intuition about that doesn’t require didactic reinforcement. Ironically, the pressure against letting adverbs intervene between the verb and ‘to’ (or likely anything that even looks like it) is so strong as to push people to truly ungrammaticality constructions, like “to increase dramatically learning opportunities for Harvard undergraduates”.

    I fear it smacks of Whorfianism, but I wonder whether labelling this ‘to V’ periphrastic construction as “The Infinitive” lends legitimacy to the idea that it is monolithic and inseperable in the minds of the opponents of “infinitive splitting”.

  28. Bryn LaFollette said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

    Ugh, and let me just apologize for the ungrammaticality of my prose above! Time to switch to decaf…

  29. Stephen Jones said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 10:19 pm

    <blockquoteI feel emboldened to say that his own sentence “As an evolving language, I don’t see any reason that the English couldn’t move toward a prohibition of split infinitives” makes it sound as if Doug were claiming to be himself an evolving language.

    Only if you deliberately misinterpret the sentence; I don’t think the meaning is unclear at all.

    Sorry, but you’re wrong. Pullum wrote on this back in 2006 “the syntax of English leaves things open for you to design your paragraphs in such a way that preposed non-finite adjunct clauses will, in context, be easily and naturally linked up with suitable understood subjects.”

    This means that we naturally link the adjunct phrase to the nearest possible subject which is ‘I’. Zwicky, I believe, said we should avoid such phrases as a matter of linguistic good manners. There was also a very sensible article on the matter in the Guardian a few days ago.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/aug/18/3

  30. Garrett Wollman said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 12:34 am

    The discussion seems mostly to center on the construction “to + ADV + V”. My intuition suggests that “to + AdvPh + V” and “to + ADV + parenthetical + V” are much more objectionable, to the point where they can be used for comic effect (e.g., the “Cheddar Gorge” game on ISIHAC). There seems to be some limit to the distance allowed between “to” and its verb, beyond which the reader is likely to run into the weeds.

  31. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 11:10 am

    John Cowan: “It’s useless to pile up counterexamples from great writers, for prescriptivists will just reply either “That’s an exception” or “That’s an error on the part of the great writer” (a third possible reply “That is not a great writer at all”).”

    There is another standard response: great writers can break the rules, because (being great) they can do so to make some subtle point or effect beyond the ability of non-great writers such as you.

    The problems with this line of reasoning are comically obvious.

  32. Sili said,

    August 23, 2008 @ 11:09 am

    The utterly inconprehensible* “heaping of catmummies” makes me thing of it as some kind of substance similar to the infamous ‘cake’.

    * I assume it has something to do with the witches’ cupboard that was the oldtime apothecary – ground mummy was some sort of panacea, so why not catmummy, too.

  33. blahedo said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

    @Stephen Jones “Sorry, but you’re wrong. Pullum wrote on this back in 2006… ‘clauses will, in context, be easily and naturally linked up with suitable understood subjects.’ This means that we naturally link the adjunct phrase to the nearest possible subject which is ‘I’.”:

    Perhaps you’re just trying to be sarcastic or ironic, but this reads more as if you’re just wilfully misinterpreting Geoff’s statement. “Suitable” quite thoroughly rules out any linking of “evolving language” with “I”, I’d say, and Geoff said nothing about “nearest possible”. The “in context” is important. There are some genuinely ambiguous cases, where dangling participles really are confusing and hence to be avoided, but this is not really one of them.

  34. Evan said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 1:37 am

    I never noticed till now that split infinitives are so hard to find in 18th century texts. In a cursory scan of Tristram Shandy I can’t find any examples whatsoever. (Admittedly a small sample size for the corpus “18th century texts”.)

  35. Mark Liberman said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 11:39 am

    Evan: I never noticed till now that split infinitives are so hard to find in 18th century texts.

    MWCDEU sez (citing Burchfield 1996):

    …the evidence in Visser 1963-73 shows the split infinitive as far bac as the 13th century. It was only occasionally in use from the 13th to the 16th centuries, then dropped out of sight until the end of the 18th century. Burchfield has examples that certainly look like the construction was consciously avoided during that period. After the split infinitive came back into favor at the end of the 18th century it came into frequent enough use to draw the unfavorable attention of 19th-century commentators like Alford 1866.

    But this is not quite accurate, since Alford doesn’t say that the construction is an unfortunate new fashion, or a common error, or whatever — he says that “this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers”. Elsewhere in The Queen’s English, he characterizes some uses as regional (e.g. Irish) or otherwise marked, so apparently he was just genuinely blind to a change that was already almost a century old.

  36. Matt McIrvin said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 8:15 am

    I sometimes find that a sentence would sound better with a split infinitive, but I can’t bring myself to write it, to avoid clashing with prescriptivist native speakers.

    I’ve found that some of the people most prone to prescriptivist grammar peeves are highly educated non-native speakers who are annoyed that native speakers aren’t following the grammar rules they laboriously learned in school. I’m inclined to take this sympathetically, since after all some of these irregularities relative to school rules probably made the language harder for them to understand at some point (I know I have the same problem with French). But they’re as prone to peevological excess as anyone.

  37. BHodges said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    As for Lewis railing against the rule about prepositions, I noticed the reference in a letter to Mary Van Deusen, July 7, 1955:

    “Don’t let anyone bully you into avoiding sentences with a preposition at the end! It’s an arbitrary rule that most great writers took no notice of.”

    From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III, pg. 630.

  38. Zander said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 4:28 am

    Okay. Looking around me, I see that very many people walk across the street without bothering to look both ways, or even one way. I seem to remember being taught some sort of a rule against that, because of cars being forced to stop to avoid running me over, but this is a fairly recent thing, put about during the last century by self-appointed “authorities,” and clearly the rule is outmoded and invalid, because these days even quite well-off people–even people who drive cars themselves–do it. So, as long as the speed limit is low enough that cars should be able to see me in time to stop, I don’t have to worry about that silly rule. If anyone honks at me, or even worse, hits me, I shall call them a prescriptivist and rest secure in the knowledge that I am in the right.

    Well, no I won’t, obviously, because that would be stupid. So why is it not stupid to deny the validity of the rules that make language clearer and more universally understood?

    The ordinary split infinitive is not something I get overheated about. Some rules are merely guidelines, and this guideline, I think, is intended to as far as is possible under normal circumstances discourage usages like that one right there, because if you can stick a word in between the “to” and the actual verb, what’s to stop you sticking an entire subordinate clause in there?

    If the rule just causes you to momentarily stop and think whether you want to do it or not, that’s it doing its job. (And yes, that one was deliberate.) Quoting great writers who use split infinitives is not to the purpose, not “because they’re great and you aren’t,” but because by definition (having become great writers) they always think about the language they’re using. Rules help people to do this, to think–and to learn to think–about what they want to do. I honestly don’t see any reason why anyone would have a problem with that.

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