Avoiding a split infinitive

From the 12/3/11 Economist, p. 43, in “Marijuana in California and Colorado: Highs and laws”:

In October, California’s four federal prosecutors threw the state (and drug-lovers everywhere in the country) into confusion when they announced their intention aggressively to go after landlords who rent their buildings to dispensaries of medical marijuana, and even after newspapers, radio and television stations who accept advertising from sellers of the weed.

The placement of the adverb aggressively (which modifies the VP in go after… that follows) before the infinitive marker to struck me as awkward, suggesting (momentarily) that the intention was aggressive, that is, that the prosecutors intended something aggressively. This brief potential ambiguity in the scope of aggressively isn’t problematic in itself, but if the writer had alternatives that are better stylistically, they’d have done better to go with one of them.

And there is a clearly better placement for aggressively: snuggled right up to the head V, go, of the VP it modifies (go after landlords …): the intention to aggressively go after landlords … Why not go for it?

Presumably because that involves the configuration misleadingly known as a “split infinitive”, against which some people bear an irrational prejudice. More on this in a moment. First, a note on why I’m resurrecting a quote from last year.

I collect linguistically relevant material of all sorts from many sources, but especially from things I read (in newspapers, magazines, or books, or on the web). The newspapers and magazines I mark up, and either post on immediately, copy over into a computer file, or save in piles of publications that mount up all around my house. After a couple of years, my place begins to look like Hoarderville, and eventually it becomes obvious that I’m never going to be able to post on much of it, and the time has come for a Great Purging, in which all of this stuff gets carted off to the Stanford recycling center.

So yesterday thousands and thousands of pieces of posting fodder went away (with my joint affliction, I’m able to sort the material crudely while sitting in a chair, but not to load up and unload the car; as with so many things, I depend on friends). In the rough sorting, I caught a few items that looked like easy postings; this is one of them.

Now, on “split infinitives” and their avoidance. These are perennial topics on Language Log, this blog, and other linguablogs; at this point, I see no useful purpose in running through the routine one more time, when MWDEU laid things out almost 25 years ago, and you can find the details in many well-informed sources. But here’s a sharply worded assessment of the baleful effects of ill-informed advice, from “How awkwardly to avoid split infinitives” on Stan Carey’s blog:

Grammatical misinformation can be countered, but it leaves a residue. It feeds what the Language Log linguists call “nervous cluelessness” about language, and it leads to avoidance of a legitimate usage because a subset of vocal pedants have fomented a petty prejudice against it.

And here’s Geoff Pullum confronting the prejudice on Language Log:

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.

On adverbial modification in non-finite VPs, including marked-infinitive VPs: the placement of adverbials mirrors their placement in finite VPs, with three main locations:

VP-initial, as in aggressively went after landlords — and marked-infinitive aggressively to go after landlords, since to go after landlords is a marked-infinitive VP, and also to aggressively go after landlords, since go after landlords is an unmarked-infinitive, or BSE-form, VP;

immediately post-V, as in finite went aggressively after landlords — and non-finite (to) go aggressively after landlords;

and VP-final, as in finite went after landlords aggressively — and non-finite (to) go after landlords aggressively

Immediately post-V placement gives to go aggressively after landlords, and there’s nothing wrong with that, though it separates the V go and the P it selects, idiomatically, in go after NP ‘pursue NP’. Other things being equal, it’s better to keep the parts of an idiomatic expression together than to separate them. And the post-V version puts aggressively in a position of lesser prominence than VP-initial or VP-final placement, while in the context the aggressiveness of pursuit should be emphasized.

VP-final placement (to go after landlords aggressively) looks great stylistically for the simplified example I’ve been looking at here, but in the actual Economist example the direct object is longer and more complex than just landlords: landlords who rent their buildings to dispensaries of medical marijuana (plus still more, but this will do here). But

to go after landlords who rent their buildings to dispensaries of medical marijuana aggressively

is definitely a poor choice: aggressively is widely separated from the main verb, and, worse, the relative clause introduces another VP (with main verb rent) that it could possibly modify. There is a partial fix for these infelicities: postpose the relative clause:

to go after landlords aggressively who rent their buildings to dispensaries of medical marijuana

Many people view the discontinuity introduced by relative clause postposition as awkward, to be used only for good reason (and it de-emphasizes the adverb, as in post-V placement).

The upshot of all this is that to aggressively go after landlords … is (in my judgment) the best available alternative stylistically — unless you’re a nut about “split infinitives”, and then I can’t help you.

These are subtle choices; there are more relevant considerations than the ones I’ve listed here (I haven’t, for instance, looked at phrase rhythms at all); and the choices have to be adjudicated case by case: one position will be best for some cases, another in others, and sometimes it will be a toss-up. It all depends on the details.



3 Responses to “Avoiding a split infinitive”

  1. the ridger Says:

    For me, it’s the announcing that was aggressive, and that’s not only the first but the pervading reading. The announced it aggressively. They announced their intention aggressively. I find it hard – though I see they want me to – to transfer that adverb to the following infinitive.

  2. Five thoughtful posts to boldly start splitting infinitives | Inquisitive editing Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky picks an example from Economist to show how the awkward placement of “aggressively” leads to a momentary […]

  3. Treading down the thorny path | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] an earlier time, in my 10/13/12 posting “Avoiding a split […]

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