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Split infinitives

January 21, 2012

I came upon a nice example of the self-consciously unsplit infinitive in a piece by John Kampfner in yesterday’s Independent. I quote from memory as I left the paper on the tube, but I think it was ‘There is no need constantly to refer to it’ (the ‘it’ was the Labour party’s less than admirable record of dealings with banking and business, and the person who keeps referring to it is David Cameron).

Let’s think about this. There is no need constantly to refer to it. The first point to make is that if Kampfner’s only aim was to avoid the splitting of an infinitive, then ‘There is no need to invoke it constantly’ would do the same job and also give the sentence a more natural sound, as well as a more intelligible emphasis – Cameron can refer to Labour’s record, OK, but not constantly. But the word order Kampfner chose seems to me to indicate that he wanted to do more than avoid a split infinitive – he wanted to say, ‘Look at me, I’m not splitting the infinitive! I’m body-swerving it!’

The result is not just an awkward-sounding sentence.  The intended meaning is blurred. Unless one chooses to emphasise ‘constantly’ by putting it at the end, then ‘constantly’ and ‘referring’ should go together. Consider: if the sentence had taken a slightly different form, not using an infinitive – let’s say, ‘There is no point in constantly referring to it’ – it would have sounded absurd to say ‘There is no point constantly in referring to it’. ‘Constantly’ and ‘referring’ belong together, we want to say.

The only reason for separating them is the ridiculous shibboleth of the split infinitive. Why shouldn’t we split infinitives? Who first said we shouldn’t? And what reasons did they give, and why did anybody listen? I have read that the reasoning behind it is that infinitives were never split in Latin, so they shouldn’t be split in English either. I am not sure if this explanation is the true one, but it is utterly fatuous. The infinitive is not a two-word form in Latin. It’s a single word, e.g. esse, meaning to be. You couldn’t split it. There’s nothing to split. You might as well say, We should never use words with W in them, because W was never used in Latin. No, because it wasn’t in their alphabet.

But in any case, even if splitting infinitives had been possible in Latin, and if the Romans had not chosen not to split them, so what? We’re not speaking Latin. We are speaking English, a language whose grammar is only distantly related to Latin.

I can’t see a single good reason for not splitting infinitives, still less any reason for drawing attention to one’s refraining from doing so. I am going to happily split infinitives whenever I feel like it, and you have my permission to jolly well do the same.

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One Comment
  1. C. Robshaw permalink

    The Latin thing was invented by the pro-splitting camp to make the anti-splitting camp look silly. The real reasoning is that “to [verb]” is a single unit, but I think that’s faulty reasoning anyway. I don’t believe “to [verb]” even is the infinitive, because in cases like “I will [verb]”, the “to” disappears. The “to” is a grammatic unit on its own. That’s how I look at it anyway.

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