An insurmountable obstacle in the way of a speeding train

Ordinarily I wouldn’t comment on yet another raging against split infinitives, but the NYT Book Review chose to use a signficant amount of space to print an intemperate letter on the topic on 14 June (p. 6).

The letter by Richard Palumbo of New York (there are a number of Richard Palumbos out there, and I don’t know which one this is, so I have no idea how he comes to be pronouncing on matters of grammar and usage and founding a Society Against Split Infinitives), reacts to Roy Blount Jr.’s review of Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman’s Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.

Palumbo begins by noting that Blount summarizes O&K’s discussions of hopefully and disinterested/uninterested and goes on to inquire:

As one of the old “fuddy-duddies out there” mentioned by the same authors, I ask: What about split infinitives, which have become even more commonplace in both the written and spoken language?

and to cite a couple of examples from the Times and then to offer what I think is a novel critique of split infinitives (well, it’s based on the popular, though mistaken, idea that infinitival to + V is a unit, but it clothes this idea in a striking metaphor).

Some details: by saying that he’s one of the “old fuddy-duddies” mentioned by O&K, Palumbo means only that he’s an old fuddy-duddy of the sort O&K refer to, not that he was mentioned personally in their book (he’s not).

Next: O&K do indeed have a section on split infinitives, in which they characterize the “rule” against them as “the most notorious myth of English grammar” (p. 20).

And then: like so many who inveigh against usages they don’t like, Palumbo has the impression that the usage has been increasing in frequency recently (split infinitives “have become even more commonplace”). Such a subjective impression of a rise in rate of use (for which Palumbo surely has no actual evidence in the split infinitives case) is a relative of the Frequency Illusion — call it the Rising Tide Illusion.

And then: Palumbo is right to note that it’s easy to find instances of split infinitives in the NYT. The Times has some quirks in its style sheet (like an obsession with periods in certain kinds of abbreviations), but Alford’s Rule — avoid split infinitives — is not one of them.

Now for the good stuff, with the speeding train:

… in a Times editorial (May 27) … we find this: “The Senate will have to carefully scrutinize Judge Sotomayor’s record on and off the bench.” Don’t we want to know what the Senate will have to do before we learn “how” they will do it? The “to” of the infinitive signals that the verb “scrutinize” is fast approaching, and why should the adverb, “carefully,” as nice a word as it is, get in its way? Here is another example: Last summer in The Times, a columnist wrote that Barack Obama, then a candidate, “has to swiftly and convincingly perform the political equivalent of the Labors of Hercules.” What is more important here? The manner in which he has to do something, or what he has to do?

Split infinitives are like putting an insurmountable obstacle in the way of a speeding train that must stop to clear the tracks before picking up speed again. We lose the thrust and impact when we separate preposition and verb, for an infinitive by its very nature needs to be taken as one unit.

An arresting metaphor, in several senses.

A few details: referring to infinitival to as a preposition has a considerable history (O&K do it too), but its only virtue is that it manages to class infinitival to as one of the small number of traditional “parts of speech” (and reflects the history of the word). NOAD2 abandons this piece of the tradition, in favor of the label “infinitive marker”. That will do for now, though there’s a fair amount of literature on the categorization of infinitival to.

This issue and a number of others are treated in Language Log postings on split infinitives (inventoried here). Several of these postings clarify the syntax associated with “marked infinitives”: in brief, to combines with a base-form VP complement (a VP[BSE]), to yield a larger VP, which we can label VP[INF]. VP[BSE] and VP[INF] then function differently in larger constructions.

In this analysis, to plus the head verb of its complement makes no sort of unit (except in a limiting case, when the VP complement consists of nothing but a  V) — this despite a tradition for referring to to + V as “the infinitive” (as Palumbo does). As a result, the very label “split infinitive” is inappropriate, though it’s often retained for convenience to refer to examples where something (usually an adverbial) intervenes between to and a V.

What’s new (to me, at any rate) is Palumbo’s idea that since infinitival to serves as a signal that a V is coming up, you should get to the V as quickly as possible, not letting anything arrest this forward progression.

Granted, infinitival to does indeed serve as a signal that a V is coming up (unless it’s a “stranded to“, as in “I don’t want to”), but then all sorts of “grammatical words” signal that something specific type of word, X, is coming up, but few require that the X follow the grammatical word immediately. The articles a and the signal that a N is coming up, but plenty of stuff can intervene. Complement-taking verbs (including the auxiliaries) signal that a V is coming up, but other material can intervene. And so on.

It looks to me like the speeding-train story is an after-the-fact rationalization for Alford’s Rule, building on the assumption that to + V is a unit, rather than an explanation for it.

That was act 1. Now on to act 2, which isn’t about Palumbo at all. Act 2 was foreshadowed by my observation that complement-taking verbs signal that a V is coming up, but that material can intervene between the two verbs. That rang a little bell of recollection — of Language Log postings about “split verbs”.

First came a posting of mine on “contamination”, in which proscriptions against one usage slop over onto other usages that are merely superficially similar to the proscribed usage. Most of my examples involved Alford’s Rule contaminating occurrences of adverbials intervening between a complement-taking verb and the head V of its complement. The result is frequently an awkward phrasing, since many adverbials are most felicitous in this position. Here’s a comment from Bob Lieblich on that posting (it’s relevant that Lieblich is a lawyer):

Here’s the first section of Title 31, United States Code, Section 3730, cut and pasted off the Web: “The Attorney General diligently shall investigate a violation under section 3729.” Not a “to” in sight. I believe Fowler would have called this the product of someone who cares very much about SI’s but does not know what one is. This sort of idiocy is especially prevalent in the writing of lawyers — well, American lawyers anyway.

A bit later, Mark Liberman recalled that at one time

… legal scholars throughout the U.S. were subjected to a peculiar form of stylistic tyranny, imposed by a curious work known as The Texas Manual on Style.

Mark cited James Lindgren (“Fear of Writing“, California Law Review 78(6):1677-1702, 1990):

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 in the Foreword 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 advice was that “has always been” is to be replaced by “always has been” or “has been always”. And similarly for other examples.

It wasn’t just lawyers who were affected. Commenters supplied instances from journalists as well, and often the connection to split infinitives was explicit — as, for instance, in this report from TootsNYC:

When i worked on a news magazine, the word “also” was always placed before the verb: “The company also will release a new product…”

I started querying every editor or reporter who handed me a story w/ that in there. To a person, they said, “You are not supposed to split the infinitive.”

More discussion from Mark (and more comments) in a follow-up posting here.

3 Responses to “An insurmountable obstacle in the way of a speeding train”

  1. SDT Says:

    One thing I like about Language Log and Arnold Zwicky’s Blog is learning that my conceptions of parts of speech are wrong. I’ve learned that there are more than 200 prepositions , that might and may are sometimes really adverbs , and now that to is not always a preposition. It reminds me that I once thought all living things were either plants or animals, including bacteria, amoebas, and mushrooms. Now I know better.

  2. McIntyre, simmering « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] By arnoldzwicky Act 2 of my latest posting on split infinitives looked at the prohibition against “split verbs” (as in “you […]

  3. live close? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] has contaminated all the others, even the most unobjectionable ones (on contamination, see here and here), and B has invented a new usage […]

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