Split those infinitives!

In a posting by Stan Carey yesterday (“How awkwardly to avoid split infinitives”), this Ozy and Millie cartoon:

Carey adds his voice to the chorus of scholars and usage writers who have ridiculed No Split Infinitives as a “rule of grammar”, and he posts a collection of examples where adverbials have been awkwardly moved to in front of to, presumably to avoid a split infinitive.

Much discussion on Language Log over the years, including Geoff Pullum on failing immediately to, here, where Geoff summarizes the point:

Let me make this clear: I’m not saying that you never have a choice, and I’m not saying the split infinitive is always the right choice to make. All I’m saying that, squirm though you may, it is fairly common for placing an adverb between infinitival to and the following plain-form verb to be not just grammatical (it is always grammatical), but also the best stylistic choice.

I have a modest collection of examples where serious writers split infinitives happily (as they should). My collection is modest only because such examples are everywhere; the New York Times, in particular, shows no editorial animus against split infinitives (though the Times is a champion of whom, even when it comes across as hyper-formal). Here’s an example from yesterday:

The groups claim that the Interior Department failed to adequately assess the risks of an oil spill in the fragile Arctic ecosystem when it approved Shell’s response plans this year. (“Alaska: Groups Sue Over Drilling in Arctic Ocean”, NYT 7/11/12, p. A18)

The alternative placements of adequatelyfailed adequately to assess the risks…, failed to assess adequately the risks…, failed to assess the risks of an oil spill in the fragile Arctic ecosystem adequately… — are all awkward, for one reason or another, while failed to adequately assess the risks is fine (unless, of course, you’ve been deluded into believing that NSI is God’s Word).

[7/17, from Mignon Fogarty on Google+, this ecard:


7 Responses to “Split those infinitives!”

  1. Greg Lee Says:

    Ordinarily an adverb can’t split a verb from its following direct object (??”They assessed adequately the risk”) unless there is some excuse for it, such as a heavy NP which is shifted to final position (“They assessed adequately the risk that they had been warned against”). Avoiding a split infinitive seems to me to be a good enough excuse: “They failed to assess adequately the risk.”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      But why would avoiding a split infinitive be a “good enough excuse”? there’s nothing wrong with them grammatically.

      • Greg Lee Says:

        Evidently there is something wrong with them grammatically, else avoiding one wouldn’t be an excuse. That’s my point. Don’t blame me — I have nothing against them, personally. I noticed this evidence, and I’m reporting it.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        No, the point is that some people *believe* (incorrectly) that there’s something wrong with them grammatically (because they’ve been explicitly taught that).

  2. More puns « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] … on the No Split Infinitives silliness (most recently on this blog, here). […]


    Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us, professor Arnold. I came to this page from the page where the dog played dead so, you see, this is practically efficient to make links to other pages.
    I like to EASILY read your new materials although some are really for professors.
    And thanks, again.

  4. Is The Split Infinitive A Grammar Mistake In Writing Today? Says:

    […] in some cases, there is no alternative. Arnold Zwicky makes this point that you can split […]

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