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'To go boldly': why splitting infinitives is a sacred duty
By Tom Chivers Education Last updated: June 20th, 2012
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The time has come, and I have a sad duty to perform. The language of Latin is dead, and we must bury it. So is Old English.
"Hang on," you might say. "Haven't they been dead for a millennium or so? Shouldn't any sensible undertaker have buried them some time ago?" Well, yes. They should have done. But they didn't, and the corpses are stinking the place out. We need to hurl them in the charnel-pit alongside the Avestan, Minoan and Scythian tongues.
I'm writing this because my colleague Peter Mullen has told off Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, for "viciously" splitting an infinitive. I would like to respectfully disagree. (He is also stern with Gove for misquoting Shakespeare: I'm happy to let him have that.) I want to tell you to joyfully split your infinitives; to happily shatter them. To firmly grasp your linguistic axe and to brutally cleave the little sods in twain.
The problem is not solely, as I hinted in the opening paragraph, that we are no longer speaking Old English or Latin, with their single-word infinitives. That is the case, though: Ænglisc-speakers could not have said "to boldly go", since the infinitive was a single word, "gān". They'd have had to say "gān bealde", or something like that. Similarly, Latin speakers wouldn't have had the option: they'd have had to say "ire audacter". (Forgive the probably awful Latin and Old English there.) But we're not speaking Latin or Ænglisc, so it's just silly to limit ourselves to the grammatical options available to them.
The larger problem is that, if we leave an infinitive unsplut, we end up with incomprehensible or bizarre formations. There are times when splitting is not just permissible but obligatory. The wizards (from the Middle English: "wise ones", sages) at Language Log point to the verb "to double". If the quantity you are measuring more than doubles, where do you put your infinitive? Normally, the sticklers would either "prepose" the modifier ("boldly to go") or "postpose" it ("to go boldly"). But with "to more than double", what would you suggest? "We expect it more than to double" or "We expect it to double more than"? The first is weird; the second is even weirder.
But it's even worse when your desperate efforts to maintain a pure and unsullied infinitive lead you to twist your sentence until its meaning becomes unclear. Wikipedia quotes an example from the linguist RL Trask: "She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected."
If you move the "gradually" adverb, where should it go? "She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected." This sounds like the decision was gradual. "She decided to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected gradually" sounds like the collection was gradual. "She decided to get gradually rid of the teddy bears she had collected" and "She decided to get rid gradually of the teddy bears she had collected" split up the idiomatic phrase "get rid of", making it painfully awkward. The only unambiguous and natural place for the adverb is in the infinitive.
I'm not telling people to stop avoiding split infinitives if they prefer the sound of it, although I suspect all but the most fanatical would find it hard in the above examples. Our own style guide is stern on the subject, and because some people find them annoying, I'm happy to avoid them where it's natural to do so. But I have to disagree with my former colleague Simon Heffer, who says "Split infinitives are never necessary." They are sometimes necessary, and what's more, there's nothing wrong with them.
(On the related question of never ending a sentence on a preposition, may I quote the saying often attributed to Churchill: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”)
A skeleton walks into a bar. Orders a beer, and a mop. -anon