Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 19, 2015

To Boldly Split That Infinitive

This post is a response to a comment by faithful reader, La Boheme, regarding the previous entry, Marginalia.

Like countless other students of English, La Boheme was taught that one must never split an infinitive if one is to write (or speak) proper English.

By “infinitive” is meant an infinitive verb phrase. An example will be the best way to make this clear. The English infinitive verb form typically includes the word “to:” to be, to go, to make, etc. One single, memorable example of a split infinitive, familiar to nearly all of us, will represent the “wrong way:”

To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

This line from the mission of the starship Enterprise is — according to notions of “correct English” — wrong. It should’ve been expressed as:

To go boldly where ….” or, even, “Boldly to go ….”

The first example is, according to the “rule” La Boheme learned, categorically incorrect, getting one a red mark on one’s essay or, in certain schools, a swat on the hand from a ruler or rod of varying thickness, length and tensile strength.

By extension, other verb phrases, particularly those using any of what we call our “to be” verbs are also included in our consideration of split infinitives. These are phrases like “am going,” “are running,” “were hoping,” etc. To modify those phrases, “correct” English insists we say “I am going soon,” not “am soon going,” “… now are running,” not “are now running,” etc.

Why am I putting “correct” and “wrong” in quotation marks?

The fact is that English don’t hardly got no rules. There are forms of English in which “English don’t” is considered “correct” (G.B. Shaw was one proponent) and the notion of a double negative (“don’t … got no”) is not, strictly, wrong. True, subjects and verbs should generally agree with one another (“he is going,” not “he are going” ((although there are exceptions in common use)) ) and modifiers should agree with the nouns they describe. Word ORDER though — where in a sentence nouns, verbs and modifiers appear  — is almost entirely up to the user. This is different from German, for example, or — and here we get to the underlying reason for the split infinitive “rule” — Latin, which do have such rules. But for English, there is simply nothing that one can describe as “standard” word order. Sentences together put can we as we wish and understood still be!

Why do we not? Let’s take a look back for a moment. Where did English come from?

What we speak now as English emerged from a blending of languages spoken by waves of invaders to the isle of Britain: Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes (i.e. a bunch of Vikings from all over Scandinavia), then French, not to mention the Catholic Church, which brought with it a highly regular, written-down and codified “official” language, Latin. Whatever mix of Anglo-Saxon/Danish/French people scattered around Britain were speaking, things were combining so rapidly and from such an early day that it had never much been written down because — duh — there was no convention for writing a “language” that was being made up as they went. Meanwhile, the Church had a head start, bringing in written Latin from ‘way back in the 6th or 7th Century, and so official stuff got written in Latin. Old English or — for showoffs — Anglo Saxon, started getting recorded around the 10th Century, but it was all over the map as far as sytax, spelling, vocabulary, depending on who was in charge of writing it down, whether Anglo Saxons or Danes (Vikings), the church and — after 1066 — native speakers of French.

In short, English was a confused mess and — let us not be afraid to say it — still is.

Take Chaucer, for example, whose work most of you got some exposure to, even in your darkest days secondary school. Ol’ Geoff was a well-established member of the court, meaning he spoke fluent French and knew Latin. Writing down his brilliant stuff in what he considered English, he gave us a lot of French and Latin vocabulary and sentence structure. He didn’t have any written standard to go by. He was making up a written version of the language based on what he heard spoken (this is oversimplifying, so any real scholars, please leave me alone).

BUT. There came a day. Way up in the 1600 and 1700s, CERTAIN PEOPLE had had just about enough of the wacky, irregular nature of English spelling, syntax and pronunciation that varied widely across regions and between classes (and remember, class mattered). The young lads (boys were sent to be educated, of course, girls, um, not so much) who studied at Eton and Oxford and Cambridge learned to read and write Latin and Greek. But, golly, they showed up from all over the realm speaking and writing the darndest variety of English dialects. English, declared the sages in charge of the language (or who thought they were), should be standardized. This meant coming up with standard ways to spell words, pronounce them, and standard ways to construct sentences. Britons, at least those of a certain quality, should hew to a higher standard!

How do you standardize the structure of English? Hey! We’ll make it like Latin. And you just simply can’t split an infinitive in Latin, because it’s an entirely different language, and the verbs are structurally different. I’m not enough of a linguist to explain it better than that, despite Miss Corwin’s most valiant attempts in Latin I and II in freshman and sophomore year. Sorry, Miss Corwin.

There, leaving out a few centuries of back-and-forth on the subject is how we got stuck with a completely artificial notion that we shouldn’t ever split (or never should split, depending on your perspective) infinitives. Someone made it up, and it got written into textbooks, ingrained into curricula and continues to be with us today.

Just for the heck of it, I started at the beginning of Canterbury Tales to see how far I’d get before I found ol’ Geoff C. splitting one: 77 lines. Here he’s describing the first (as in highest ranking) of his fellow pilgrims, the Knight (or Knyght, since Chaucer also had no standard dictionary to go by):

For he was late ycome from his viage. I translate that as, “He’d recently returned from his military expedition.”

Mr. C. split “was ycome” or “had returned” into “had recently returned,” rather than “… had returned recently.” I need no greater authority. Don’t make me open my Shakespeare, or we’ll be here all day.

Let us boldly go to use English any way we darned well please.

As for ending a sentence with a preposition. I think I’ll wait for another post to address that in.

© Brad Nixon 2015

P.S. An excellent survey of the history of English is The Stories of English, by David Crystal. I gleaned some of the background for this piece from Mr. Crystal, which I gratefully acknowledge.

 

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Responses

  1. How much clunky, awkward and laughable business writing I’ve seen by obsessive, unquestioning devotees of that “rule”! Here’s to boldly and intelligently using our language.

    Like

  2. Great as the Enlightenment, and funny! Thanks!

    Like

  3. Thanks for all that, looking forward to read what I may comfortably end my sentences with.

    Like

  4. Ah HAH! I was right! It WAS the British after all who foisted that archaic rule upon us less learned and sophisticated Americans. Not that I actually KNEW that answer when I proposed it in your last blog on the subject. But, even a blind dog finds a bone once in a while. Thanks for the enlightening article.

    In response to The Counselor above, what is really funny in retrospect is that an English professor at Miami often wrote “awk” in the margins of my papers. I guess, according to him and a certain 20th C. English Lord, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” LOL! I never could get a “A” in that freshman English Honors class. Go figure.

    Like


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