split infinitives

It is difficult these days to find anyone who is willing to take a stand against this atrocity. Indeed, there has been a growing consensus, perhaps over the last century, that the prohibition against split infinitives is based on a misguided attempt to impose the rules of Latin grammar on English, and that their strict avoidance has led to more bad writing than good.

Fowler did not help matters when he placed himself to the left of those whom he termed "non-split die-hards", allowing that the split infinitive, "though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, or to patent artificiality." However, those who would take this as condonation of indiscriminate splitting would do well to consult The King's English, in which his position is stated more clearly:

The split infinitive is an ugly thing, ... but it is one among several hundred ugly things, and the novice should not allow it to occupy his mind exclusively.

For Raymond Chandler, the practice of splitting seems to have been something like an expression of manhood. As he told one magazine editor who had presumed to correct him, "When I split an infinitive, God damn it, it stays split."

George Bernard Shaw registered a similar complaint to The Times of London:

There is a pedant on your staff who spends far too much of his time searching for split infinitives. Every good literary craftsman uses a split infinitive if he thinks the sense demands it. I call for this man's instant dismissal; it matters not whether he decides to quickly go or to go quickly or quickly to go. Go he must, and at once.

Even my good friend Coke Smith has made sport of my concern with this issue:

A bit like worrying about how the people of India are going to take care of all of that sacred cow dung. But it is grand that the split infinitive is a pea under someone's mattress.
My position, I admit, is an uncomfortable one. Ordinarily, when I have a firm opinion about a question of grammar or usage, I'm able to support it with some rational argument, often supplied by an established authority. But in this case, all I can say is that every split infinitive that I hear grates on my ear. And it should be noted here that my notion of split infinitive is uncommonly comprehensive. I was amused to find, at the other extreme, the view expressed in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage:
... to is only an appurtenance to the infinitive, which is the uninflected verb .... Native speakers do not really split infinitives, unless it is in the slangy construction in which an expletive is infixed between the syllables of a word ....
Thus, while according to this view, the infinitive reinvent is unviolated in the phrase to once again reinvent the wheel, an example of a true split infinitive, as contrived by the editors of M-W, is the tmesis to re-fucking-invent the wheel.

A more conventional definition is proposed by Gowers:

The infinitive can be split only by inserting a word or words between to and the word which, with to, forms the infinitive.
But in my view, any exploitation of the textual division between the words that form the infinitive (including to) constitutes a splitting thereof. For example, while dozing off on the runway prior to takeoff on an early morning Delta Airlines flight, I was startled by the following:
If you cannot or do not want to operate the emergency exit, ....
While the violation may not be immediately apparent to the careless listener, any attempt to parse the clause reveals that the disjunct parallel to cannot is do not want to, and this analysis, intolerably, forces the logical splitting of to operate.

During the course of my ongoing search for expert commentary in support of my position, I discovered a newspaper article reporting the unfortunate decision by Oxford University Press to abandon the cause, along with the shocked responses of various members of the literary community. One of those interviewed was Sam Pickering of the University of Connecticut, identified as the inspiration for the lead character in the movie The Dead Poets' Society. I wrote to Prof. Pickering, hoping that he might elaborate his comments.

Dear Prof. Pickering,

I recently happened upon an Associated Press article of October 26, 1998, in which the remark "I do not dine with those who split infinitives" was attributed to you. Although various social and professional commitments preclude my strict adherence to such a policy, I believe that I share the underlying sentiment.

My concern for the language is genuine and my reprehension of its abuse is pertinacious. Unfortunately, my explicit knowledge of its grammar and history is quite limited. Thus, I often must rely on the experts for authoritative and rational support for my views. With regard to the integrity of the infinitive, however, they have provided little in the way of the former and none of the latter. -+

Your own statement on this subject seems to echo the horror expressed in Henry Alford's classic observation (1866): "But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers." Of course, similar opinions have been recorded by MacCracken and Sandison (1917), Tanner (1931), and others of their period, but only very rarely by later commentators.

Of greater concern to me than the current unpopularity of this position is my failure to discover any cogent argument that has ever been presented in its favor. My usual sources are of no help--even Fowler falters on this issue. Those who have written most extensively on the subject, e.g., Lounsbury (1908) and Curme (1931), invariably take the opposite view. Our objection, they insist, is based on the intrinsic atomicity of Latin infinitives, which is irrelevant to the analysis of English. I have been unable to find in the literature a single rebuttal to this claim.

I appeal to you, Sir, for guidance. Does our abhorrence of this practice have a rational basis? Is there a compelling argument for the relevance of the structure of Latin? Can you suggest an alternative defense of the integrity of the English infinitive or refer me to other authors who have? Is my own position nothing more than a reflection of blind obedience to the teachings of my father? Any assistance in answering these questions that you might be able to provide would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely yours,

David M. Russinoff

Unfortunately, I seem to have caught Prof. Pickering at a bad time.
I have just arrived in Perth for a year in Australia. Eucalyptus, parrots, hakea, two dissatisfied children, and a gloomy wife surround me. I am afraid that I have left the infinitive behind. What I do is write books of familiar essays, or at least I have written twelve of them. That is what I am doing here.

I now must write a speech for the Friends of the University of Western Australia Press. But language is infinitely various. It is always changing, particularly English at the present. The French academy has tried to codify French--with little success. The split infinitive often grates upon my ear, but not always. The grating results from the world in which I grew up.

Also interviewed in the AP article was Loftus Jestin of Central Connecticut State University, who observed that "hearing split infinitives is like listening to Mozart when the pianist keeps hitting all the wrong notes." I sent a similar plea to Prof. Jestin and was rewarded with the following response, which is perhaps as much as I might have hoped for.
Your research into the matter seems thorough enough; the unambiguous answer you'd like to find you will not. Rather, the question falls into another category, perhaps more sublime in nature, that corresponds with reasons for preferring Mozart over the Rolling Stones or Bach over the Beatles. The great writers of the past generally did not split infinitives, less because of gradgrindism, than because of instinct. Yet, when the euphony of a line called for a split or ambiguity demanded it, they'd split their infinitives, however they resisted doing so, as is demonstrable by the rarity of the action. The arguments concerning the transferral of grammatical rules governing agglutinating Latin words to analytical English phrases may be inapposite and silly, but one should remember (if I may be permitted to slip farther into the jargon of linguistics) that the "to" affixed to the infinitive form isn't really a word at all but a particle whose existence relies utterly on the stem. When the particle falls away from the stem, language becomes sloppy and slovenly, if not unruly.