Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

To convincingly write

So, if you just look at the superficial layer, you will say that it is grammatically incorrect to split an infinitive. I mean, it's in all the books, right? So it must be wrong. A noted example of this error: "to boldly go" from the opening to Star Trek.

But, if you dig a little deeper, you will say that the prescriptive grammar rules we learned in school were mostly arbitrary decisions made by 18th century grammarians who troweled the models of Latin grammar over English usage. In Latin, the infinitive is one word and is impossible to split; these bluenosed grundies applied that rule to the two-word English infinitive just because they privileged the classic over the vernacular. The rule against splitting infinitives is poppycock! A noted example of this position: "to boldly go" has much more euphony than "to go boldly."

But, if you think about it a little longer, it gets a little more complicated. Those grammarians may indeed have been humorless prigs, but there may be something to the unity of the infinitive after all. To native ears, "to beyond the the farthest reaches of the galaxy go" has no euphony; it sounds particularly awkward, as a matter of fact. Perhaps we can't split infinitives willy-nilly after all.

But, if you let it stew around in your head for a while, you might come up with a theory: splitting infinitives is okay if you're not really splitting them. "To boldly go" can be seen as "to boldly-go": the verbal component is compact and cohesive enough to be conceptualized as boldly-going, a single verb, one integral action - at least by the hard-wiring in the language section of our brains. So, it passes, while "to beyond the farthest &c. go" does not. "To willingly destroy" property sounds right; "to with an axe chop" wood does not. We might see the first-mentioned written; we would never expect the second. We arrive soon at the point where we say there is no "rule" against splitting infinitives, but our language processor just won't let us do it anyway.

But, if you are hard-nosed rhetorician, you will still hold to the opinion that if you mean "boldly-go" and can't find a real word for it, you are a lousy writer, and that splitting infinitives may not be wrong, but it's a practice of the weak, the meek, and the simple.

As the song asks, did you ever have to finally decide?


Produced under the Who's on First license:
Bud: That's the first thing you've said right!
Lou: I don't even now what I'm talkin' about!

5 comments:

Yojimbo_5 said...

Interestingly (or not), in one of the few episodes of "Enterprise" I watched, the creator of the warp-drive (I forget the name, but he was played by James Cromwell, as he was "First Contact"--George Maharis played him in the original series) gave a speech wishing the citizens of Earth "to go boldly where no one has gone before."

I blame Shatner. He also says "sabo-taszh," rather than sabo-tahszh."

Jon said...

And this is something up with which I shall not put - to quote Churchill on another supposed horror.

Isn't it simpler than that - if whatever you put in between the verb and its particle is too long or confusing to retain the sense of the multi-part verb, it shouldn't be there?

Just a phort (WV)?

Yojimbo_5 said...

We're not going to go obsessively on with this, are we?

WV: "Trimpbe"=Wimpy's triplet sister

wheylona said...

Pretty much what Jon said: floating around in the back of my former semi-pro linguist brain is the general cross-linguistic prohibition against "heavy" elements intervening between otherwise separable elements due to the cognitive strain of trying to parse such structures.

This very sensible rule nevertheless doesn't translate well into hard and fast exception-free rules that we can teach to our nascent writers and ESL/EFL students. But armed with the anti-heavy rule and ample examples and exposure, my EFL students at least get it pretty quickly.

And we can still poo-poo the prescriptive grammarians to boot!

For Yojimbo's sake, I'll stop here. ;-)

Jon said...

"I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow."

Strunk & White