« Prosecutorial Discretion: Valerie Plame and Sandy Burglar | Main | Deduction Thresholds and Tax Recordkeeping »

July 23, 2004

Splitting Infinitives

In a post on poor writing in the New York Times--- "They have offered theories about what that purpose may have been, like an effort to withhold information..." --- I wrote

In the old days, a Times reporter would have written They have offered theories about what that purpose may have been, such as an effort to withhold information , to at least get the grammar correct, or They say the purpose may have been to withhold information , to make it less verbose and clearer.

A reader kindly commented:

I heartily approve of parsing text from the Times and the Post, but if you're nitpicking grammar, you might want to tidy up your own, "to at least get the grammar right." :-)

and

BTW, pls. feel free to edit out my comment above (and this one too!) along with the split infinitive, should you choose to make changes.

I am grateful for his comments and the way he wrote them. One of the perils of writing about writing is that mistakes undermine one's credibility (why?-- perhaps by indicating that the writer doesn't really think the topic so important). And I wouldn't mind admitting a mistake and rewriting the passage. I can almost always find ways to improve something I've written, even in scholarly papers that are way beyond the tenth draft, and I very much believe in nitpicking grammar (see my recent post on commas and Eats, Shoots & Leaves). But here, again, is what I wrote,

In the old days, a Times reporter would have written They have offered theories about what that purpose may have been, such as an effort to withhold information , to at least get the grammar correct, or They say the purpose may have been to withhold information , to make it less verbose and clearer.

Here is how I would rewrite it:

In the old days a Times reporter would have written, "They have offered theories about what that purpose may have been, such as an effort to withhold information," to at least get the grammar correct, or "They suggest the purpose was to withhold information," to reduce verbosity and increase clarity.

I would retain the split infinitive, "to at least get the grammar correct", rather than change it to "to get the grammar correct, at least". I admit my advocacy of the split infinitive is controversial, but it is controversial only because there are good writers on both sides of the issue-- that is, my advocacy is controversial rather than just perverse.

The first issue is whether it is okay to split infinitives at all. I don't see why not. The main objection is formalist: that "to get" is like one word, and in more logical languages than English would indeed be one word. An infinitive in Latin would be something like "amare"; in French, "etre"; in Russian-- if my distant memories are correct-- "pahnimats". It would be strange to put an adverb in the middle of a verb-- "I ex-carefully-plored the island" instead of "I carefully explored the island."

Against this formalist objection I would put three other considerations. First, it is standard to split infinitives in our spoken language, and in some cases to do otherwise sounds contrived. Second, splitting the infinitive often creates no ambiguity or change in meaning. Third, an equally good formalist argument can be made for putting the adverb inside the infinitive in some cases-- that do so shows that the adverb is really part of the verb idea being expressed. "To at least get the grammar correct" is one idea, whereas "To get the grammar correct, at least" is two ideas, as the pressure for a comma helps show. Thus, there is a slight difference in meaning. And in rebuttal to Latin's use of the one word "amare" for "to love", note that Latin would also use the one word "amo" for "I love", yet formalists do not object to splitting a verb-idea by writing "I always loved her".

A second issue is whether it is proper to split the infinitive in this particular example. I'm running out of time, so I will try to be brief, and might end up being sloppy. As I said in the last paragraph, there is a slight difference in meaning depending on whether I split the infinitive or not, and I want the meaning that has the split infinitive. Also, "To get the grammar correct, at least" has a very awkward rhythm, a sort of gallop to it. "To GET the GRAMmar corRECT, at LEAST." If instead I write, "To at LEAST get the GRAMmar corRECT," I have a more subtle and suitable meter. Equally important, I put the emphasis only on the important words-- "least", "grammar", "correct"-- and not on "get".

But now I should return to the New York Times. They used "like" instead of "such as". But didn't I do the same when I said, An infinitive in Latin would be something like "amare"? And isn't "like" commonly used in place of "such as" in spoken English?

The questions are related. I could equally well have written 1. An infinitive in Latin would be something such as "amare". But there is a difference in meaning from 2. An infinitive in Latin would be something like "amare". Sentence 1 says that Latin infinitives are similar to "amare", whereas sentence 2 says that one example of a Latin infinitive is "amare" without claiming that other Latin infinitives have any similarity to "amare".

Common spoken usage blurs this distinction, and thus is bad. The New York Times shows this. We can tell that in this case the writers meant that "an effort to withhold information" was just one example of a Republican theory, and that other theories were not necessarily similar to that one. But by using "like" they suggest that other theories were like the one they cite.

Of course, there is a deeper problem than grammar here too, because it is not clear that the Times reporters actually think that Republicans have more than one theory. That is why in the rewrite I propose for them I dispense with talk about theories and just say that Republicans suggest that Berger was trying to withhold information. If the Times reporters actually do mean to say that Republicans are not accusing Berger of any one thing and have multiple theories to explain his theft, then the reporters should tell us about more than one of the theories.

Am I foolish to spend so much time on this small point? Perhaps. But I find it an entertaining issue to explore, and if I could actually improve the writing of some people that would be much to the public good. In fact, if this post even makes people take writing more seriously that would be the public good.

I should warn those who may comment on it, though, that I might be too occupied this next few weeks to reply.

Posted by erasmuse at July 23, 2004 05:16 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.rasmusen.org/mt-new/mt-tb.cgi/46

Comments

Post a comment




Remember Me?