Minor writers, revolt!

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This is a brief follow-up to what Mark just said to "Robert", one of our commenters who thinks there is "massive literary authority" for the avoidance of split infinitives. Robert is going to be really disappointed by this. The eminent (and fairly conservative) early 20th-century American grammarian George O. Curme made a detailed study of the literary history of the split infinitive, and amassed a collection of hundreds and hundreds of examples. Some of his findings (and many though not all of his examples) are set forth in his book Syntax (1931), which forms Part III of his 3-volume work A Grammar of the English Language. Look at what he says on page 461:

[The split infinitive] has long been used in literary and colloquial language. In general, it is more characteristic of our more prominent authors than of the minor writers, who avoid it as they fear criticism.

Poor Robert. And poor Deb at Punctuality Rules, and poor Karen Elizabeth Gordon (see the book pictured there). They have all been suckered by a piece of fake-rule invention out of the late 19th century, and have joined the ranks of the "minor writers, who avoid [the split infinitive] as they fear criticism." While "prominent authors" have the courage and judgment to place their adjuncts just where those adjuncts work best syntactically and semantically, whether just after infinitival to or elsewhere in the clause, the timid little minor writers daren't follow them. Isn't that sad? A nation's minor writers in thrall to a rule that doesn't have any justification or factual basis and never did have any. Break out, minor writers! Revolt! You have nothing to lose, and an extra possibility of stylistically appropriate adjunct positioning to gain!



28 Comments

  1. Randy Alexander said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

    Surely it's not a fear of criticism leading you to uncourageously avoid them.

    ; )

  2. noahpoah said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 11:34 am

    Couldn't you have split the infinitives in your final sentence to better drive the point home?

    [No, dammit! This isn't about being rebellious just to show I'm a rebel. It's about placing adjuncts where they are best placed. The adjuncts in my final sentence are exactly where they need to be. It isn't that it's good, or cathartic, or subversive of bourgeois society, to split infinitives; it's just that it's dumb to be under the delusion that adjuncts are barred from immediately preverbal position in marked infinitival clauses. —GKP]

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    noahpoah: Couldn't you have split the infinitives in your final sentence to better drive the point home?

    Randy Alexander: Surely it's not a fear of criticism leading you to uncourageously avoid them.

    I know that these comments are jokes, but they'd be better jokes if Geoff's last sentence had contained — or invited — any adjuncts that could have been used to split "to lose" or "to gain".

    This whole discussion is about how to express ideas that are naturally framed in terms of adverbially modified infinitives. It's not about whether to introduce additional adverbial adjuncts for no reason at all, as you and Sir Roderick seem to think.

  4. kip said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

    To think, all these great authors have been using bad grammar, and the minor authors have been showing them up with their superior grammar skills! I think it must be because you have to write better when you are not yet an established writer, but once you are established you don't care anymore because whatever you write will get published and sold.

    PS that was sarcasm

  5. Randy Alexander said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

    Mark Liberman: This whole discussion is about how to express ideas that are naturally framed in terms of adverbially modified infinitives.

    It's close to 2am here in China so it's not the best time for me to be thinking my clearest, but to get back on topic, it seems to me that it would be possible to use NLP to gather instances of adverbially modified to infinitivals that could be then looked at for patterns that might tell us what kinds of adjuncts tend to be splitting infinitives, and what kinds tend not to (of course limiting ourselves to adjuncts that could split infinitives).

  6. Robert said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    Thanks for all this information, on top of the stuff from the previous post. I think you mistook my attitude in my original comment for one of an anti- split infinitive extremist. I'm certainly not 'really disappointed', but in fact very pleased to be learning more on the subject and having some of my misapprehensions corrected. I'm far too young to be so set in my opinions as you imagine!
    Is Curme's grammar worth looking at generally? I must confess, I've never opened a grammar of English: would it be a good place to start?

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

    Randy Alexander: … it seems to me that it would be possible to use NLP to gather instances of adverbially modified to infinitivals that could be then looked at for patterns that might tell us what kinds of adjuncts tend to be splitting infinitives, and what kinds tend not to…

    Yes, though attaching adjuncts correctly is one of the hardest things for automatic parsers to do, so I think you'd probably want to use a hand-corrected collection.

    I predict that you'd discover significant variation in infinitive-splitting frequency among adjuncts that are otherwise matched for frequency; and no doubt some differences according to the infinitival verb, the role of the infinitive in the matrix clause, the author's age and nationality, the genre of writing, and so on.

    It's less clear to me what this would all mean: I'm not sure that there's a clear hypothesis to be tested here, and the intrinsic interest of the numbers themselves seems to be small.

  8. Polly Glot said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

    Mark Liberman: This whole discussion is about how to express ideas that are naturally framed in terms of adverbially modified infinitives.

    But what about negatives, as in "To be, or to not be?"? (I see Fitzmaurice wrote a paper about negatives in split infinitives in a journal called American Speech, in 2000, saying something about Jesperson having discussed it in 1917, but it was in teeny weeny writing, and I was too cheap to pay them for a readable version.)

  9. nascardaughter said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

    the timid little minor writers daren't follow them

    Or some writers just prefer a different style.

    [Naaah. There's no style involved here. Pointlessly avoiding one particular location for adjuncts doesn't define a style. It's just blind adherence to a fictional prohibition that was never genuinely in force. Like never
    parking in space number 23 because you falsely believe there is a city ordinance prohibiting it. —GKP]

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

    The chief trouble with "To be, or to not be" is that it doesn't scan.

  11. Roy said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

    Even James Kirkpatrick (whose column "The Writer's Art" reveals him to lean somewhat to the prescriptivist side) urges us to use our ears to decide whether or not to split an infinitive.

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

    Polly Glot: But what about negatives, as in "To be, or to not be?"?

    Check out Arnold Zwicky's posts "Not to or to not", 5/7/2005 (and in preparation, "Obligatorily split infinitives", 5/14/2004); and Eric Bakovic's "Better to X than to not Y", 11/5/2005.

  13. Alan Gunn said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 6:35 pm

    Roy wrote: "Even James Kirkpatrick (whose column "The Writer's Art" reveals him to lean somewhat to the prescriptivist side) urges us to use our ears to decide whether or not to split an infinitive."

    Kilpatrick is one of those people who thinks that "has been" and similar forms are infinitives, and he generally avoids splitting them. I've wondered whether the people (mostly lawyers and journalists, I think) who avoid this kind of splitting do so because they think they're infinitives and that infinitives shouldn't be split, or if they just have a taste for awkwardly placed adverbs. I once asked a legal-writing instructor why she told her students to follow this odd practice, but she refused to discuss the matter.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 7:39 pm

    Alan Gunn: Kilpatrick is one of those people who thinks that "has been" and similar forms are infinitives…

    It seems unlikely to me that Kilpatrick thinks that "has been" is an infinitive, and also unlikely that he objects to placing an adverb between "has" and "been" — can you cite a source?

  15. gribley said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 11:11 pm

    It seems unlikely to me that Kilpatrick thinks that "has been" is an infinitive, and also unlikely that he objects to placing an adverb between "has" and "been" — can you cite a source?

    Isn't this an example of the sort of NSI contamination which Arnold Zwicky blogged about a few months ago?

  16. Garrett Wollman said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 12:48 am

    One thing that does seem clear to me: no matter what literary authorities you accept, the "split infinitive" construction is of non-trivial yet low relative frequency. As Mark notes, not every use of an infinitive needs to be modified, never mind modified in precisely this way. Is this a template for language peeves generally?

  17. skot said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 2:21 am

    I would bet that almost any sentence can avoid a split infinitive without losing its intial meaning. The trouble is that most of these sentences would usually lose something when it comes to style…

    I'm moving to France to not get fat.
    I'm moving to France, so that I don't get fat.

    Even "we expect it more than to double" could be written differently, but it would be helpful to have enough context to know how "it" might become more than twice what it is now and also to know what "it" is.

    It's only lazy prescriptionists who get caught writing "more than to double"… The question is whether a "diligent" prescriptionist should go to all the trouble, when a split infinitive sounds more natural.

  18. Polly Glot said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 3:41 am

    Mark, thanks for the refs.

    To summarize: they're talking about obligatorily split infinitives — Arnold's is about a verb 'to get fat', where 'I'm moving to France to not get fat' has a different meaning to 'I'm moving to France not to get fat'. Eric's 'it's better to read a short version than to not read the long version (of the Bible)' is also obligatory, because the meaning changes if you write 'not to read'.

    It seems like the meaning of "To be, or to not be?" is more clearly about death than is "To be, or not to be?". With no context, the Shakespeare version could easily be a question about whether to use the verb 'to be'. Well, ok, there is a context in Hamlet. I think Skot's point about style is too subjective, it's so fuzzy that it is hard to discuss it rationally; but I'm pretty sure most people would (for different reasons) still say Shakespeare's version is 'better' than mine.

  19. Polly Glot said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 3:45 am

    …oops, I should have ended by saying 'but I'm not sure they're right'.

  20. Nancy Jane Moore said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 9:16 am

    As a mere writer rather than a linguist, I think you all are making this subject way too complicated. If we were not meant to joyously split infinitives whenever meaning or rhythm requires it, why are English infinitives written as two words, rather than one?

    I confess to despising prescriptivists — possibly a lingering reaction to the authoritarian grammarians who taught me English in the eighth and tenth grades — which is one reason (among many) that reading Language Log gives me so much pleasure.

    And if only minor writers split infinitives, I must be, by definition, a major writer. If l continue to extravagantly split infinitives wherever possible, the readers must surely follow.

  21. Alan Gunn said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 9:17 am

    "It seems unlikely to me that Kilpatrick thinks that "has been" is an infinitive, and also unlikely that he objects to placing an adverb between "has" and "been" — can you cite a source?"

    My comment about Kilpatrick and the infinitive is based on memory. The belief that any form involving more than two verbs together is an infinitive is widespread–Fowler commented on it years ago.

    [(myl) Citation?]

    Kilpatrick was defending infinitive splitting (on occasion, anyway) and used as an example an ordinary present perfect form.

    [(myl) Citation?]

    As for his objection, just read some of his columns, which abound in awkwardly placed adverbs.

    [(myl) Citation? I just re-read three of them without finding any adverbs that seemed awkwardly placed to me, so this must be a relatively restrained form of "abounding".]

    The phobia about avoiding "split verbs" is widespread among newspaper people–George Will does it all the time, as does the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times is one major exception.

    [(myl) Evidence? I just did a search of ProQuest's Historical Wall Street Journal corpus, 1889-1991, and found that "has always been" dominates "always has been" and "has been always", 84.6% vs. 15.1% and 0.3%. The same search in the Historical New York Times corpus (1851-2005) yields the not-very-different values 88.1% vs. 11.1% and 0.8%. ]

    Although this belief seems to be common, the only usage guide I've ever seen that presented it as a "rule" was the Texas Law Review's "Style Manual," and it recanted, grudgingly, a few years ago.

    [(myl) Citation? Sorry to be a pest, but we give prescriptivists a well-deserved hard time for asserting, without evidence, things that turn out to be untrue. It's only fair to hold ourselves to the same standard.]

  22. Alan Gunn said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 10:14 am

    OK, it's been years since I've read Kilpatrick. I looked at several of his recent columns (all I could find on-line) and his adverbs seem fine. I suppose he learned something since I quit reading him. I don't have ready access to a law library, but the Texas Law Review's style manual was notorious for its insistence on "no split verbs." As for the Wall Street Journal, can you do a search limited to post-1980 text? I strongly suspect that you'll find a very different ratio.

    [(myl) Searching from 1980 through 1991, we see a small change — in the wrong direction for your hypothesis. The pattern "has always been" gets an 86.9% share (up from 84.6%), compared to 13% for "always has been" (down from 15.1%) and 0.1% for "has been always" (down from 0.3%).

    As for the Texas Law Review, its odd stylistic prejudices came up once before on Language Log — "Grammatical Indoctrination at Law Reviews", 10/8/2005; and a quick web search does turn up an article by James Lindgren ("Fear of Writing", California Law Review 78(6):1677-1702, 1990), which asserts that "The Texas Manual on Style is one of the most pernicious collections of superstitions that has ever been taken seriously by educated people", and provides 27 pages of particulars, including this passage:

    Unquestionably, the most dangerous advice in the old fifth edition of the Texas Manual was its disapproval of split verbs: "Avoid splitting verb phrases with adverbs. . . ." In other words, don't place an adverb between the parts of a compound verb. Yet Fowler and Follett (both praised n the Foreward to the Texas Manual) argued that the normal place for an adverb is in the midst of a multiple word verb. Thus the fifth edition of the Texas Manual seemed to have gotten the rule backwards. It prohibited what the experts recommend.
    […]
    The new sixth edition of the Texas manual has greatly softened its rule against split verbs. It now states:
    "Splitting verb phrases with adverbs is permissible if the adverb modifies the verb and not some other part of the sentence."
    Note that the Texas Manual doesn't say that split verbs are normal or preferable, language that it uses to recommend other constructions. Rather, it says that split verbs are permissible.

    So you're right about this one — although I still haven't seen any evidence that even the buffoons in charge of the fifth and earlier editions thought that all compound verbs are infinitives, or that either James Kilpatrick or the WSJ ever endorsed the "no split verbs" nonsense. (I'm not saying they didn't, just that I'd like to see some evidence for this serious accusation.) ]

  23. Alexandre said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    As a non-native speaker of English, I frequently use convoluted syntax in order to avoid "split infinitives." Because of this, some native speakers of English who infrequently write long-form texts in their language have frequently commented positively on my mastery of "their" language. Of the "your write English better than us" type.
    Of course, the avoidance strategy easily makes the text sound "precious," which may or may not be the intention of the author. (It's funnier when it isn't.) As you know, mastering proper registers is quite difficult in a second language. Those native speakers who react positively to my English proficiency often do so on the basis of my sounding like what they were told was the "proper way."
    Funny to a radical anti-prescriptivist like me (I think Geoff is soft on them!) to be praised for my approximation of the perceived standard…

    The creative author comment makes me think about a well-known Beethoven anecdote (possibly apocryphal, but still useful). It's on parallel fifths, which are strictly avoided in composition classes but not absent from well-known compositions.
    Beethoven: "Well, they may have forbidden them, but I allow them."

  24. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 11:41 am

    Robert: "Is Curme's grammar worth looking at generally? I must confess, I've never opened a grammar of English: would it be a good place to start?"

    Standard disclaimer: I am not a linguist. I am just a random geek who includes linguistics among his interests.

    On to the question: it's hard to say. It depends on what you are looking for. The book in question is his "A Grammar of the English Language" which has been published in several editions (some three volumes and some two, so it can be confusing). It doesn't seem to currently be in print, but you can get it used for around fifty dollars.

    Two things to understand going in: it is not an instructional grammar. It was never intended to classroom use. It is a reference book. That being said, it is pretty readable, as such things go. If the idea of a formal grammar as bathroom reading strikes you as reasonable, then sure, why not?

    The second thing is that it was written in the 1930s(??). This has implications, not all of them bad. "Traditional grammar" as formerly taught in schools and as generally understood by non-specialists is essentially academic grammar of c. 1890. For somewhat obscure reasons, academic grammars and pedagogic grammars diverged around then, with academic grammars continuing to incorporate new information and ideas and pedagogic grammars remaining unchanged beyond modernizing the typeface. A lot of what Curme writes is not all that different from pedagogic grammars, but some newer ideas had worked their way in (e.g. sentence adverbs and determiners). From the modern perspective the result can be a weird intermediate form: not quite a traditional grammar but not certainly not a modern one either. In practice it seems to me closer to traditional, this being well B.C. (Before Chomsky). For someone just testing the waters this is not necessarily bad, as it can be comfortably familiar but with some newer concepts to challenge you.

    For something more up to date, consider the Cambrige Grammar of the English Language by Rodney Huddleston and Language Log's own Geoffrey Pullum: a mere $140 at Amazon.com. If that is too rich for your blood, the other standard is A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Randolph Quirk, et al.: a steal at $127.46. I own both, and can therefore solidly secure in place two doors at a time.

  25. Alan Gunn said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

    "I still haven't seen any evidence that even the buffoons in charge of the fifth and earlier editions thought that all compound verbs are infinitives"

    No, I haven't either. I can't tell whether the no-split-verbs people think these are infinitives or have some other reason for disliking them. The ones I've asked refuse to discuss the matter. I do remember Kilpatrick calling an ordinary present perfect form an infinitive in a column long ago, but I can't cite it, as these seem not to be available on line. I quit reading his column precisely because I thought it silly to seek language advice from someone with his (then) practice about adverbs.

    Your data on the Wall Street Journal seem persuasive, though I continue to believe that they, at least on their editorial page, try to avoid splitting verbs. I have no source of data, though, as I no longer get that paper.

    In the future, I'll try to refrain from making comments based on my memory of things.

  26. Patrick Dennis said,

    August 23, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    James Kilpatrick has known very well what an infinitive is and has approved the splitting thereof, when indicated, for at least twenty-five years. From his column of 9 October, 1983:
    "In light of all this, I recommend that infinitive splitters of the world unite: We have nothing to lose but our hang- ups. If we want to touch lightly on a topic, we should preserve the integrity of the infinitive form; if we want to viciously savage it, we are free to split the infinitive to smithereens. No stigma attaches to the splitting, nor did it ever in the minds of many of the most prestigious usagarians. Let us put the modifier in the place – before the to , just after it, or after the verb – where it works best for our purpose of stress or grace."

  27. --Deb said,

    August 23, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

    Actually, I never said that I personally subscribed to the "no split infinitive" philosophy. (In fact, I said quite the contrary last January, here: http://punctualityrules.com/2008/01/21/mm-split-infinitive/ ) What I HAVE said is that it's one of those rules that you can't help but stumble across over and over again.

  28. Matt McIrvin said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 8:05 am

    Of course, if the rule is more followed by minor writers than great ones, the standard high-school teacher's response is: "Yes, great writers violate this rule sometimes when their sublime ears for language indicate it, but you aren't yet great enough to have permission."

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