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.