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Splitsville

Certain debates, like urban legends, make the rounds of the Internet on a regular basis—so let me clarify at the outset that I’m not trying to participate in this one. I refer to the splitting-infinitives debate. It seems to me it’s been resolved. We can all split infinitives to our heart’s content. We shouldn’t go marking student papers with red ink around “to boldly go.” The whole business harks back to a time when infinitives didn’t use two words but were more like the French, like avoir and être rather than “to have” and “to be.” I am totally down with flinging this rule, qua rule, into the dustbin.

And yet inquiring minds want to know. Responding to a recent rehash, in England’s Telegraph, of this no longer controversial “controversy,” one commenter (let’s call him Q) quoted the writer, Tom Chivers, and then added a gloss of his own. Chivers wrote of the hidebound nonsplitters: “I would like to respectfully disagree.  I want to tell you to joyfully split your infinitives; to happily shatter them. To firmly grasp your linguistic axe and to brutally cleave the little sods in twain.”

Clever! And yet Q proceeded to rewrite as follows: “I respectfully disagree. I want to tell you to split your infinitives joyfully; to shatter them happily. To grasp your linguistic axe firmly and to cleave the little sods in twain, brutally.”

For Chivers’s “necessary” infinitive split, “She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected,” Q substituted, “She decided to get rid of her teddy bear collection gradually.”

I can’t help it: I like the rewrites better. I’ve been showing the two sets of sentences to others, both buffs and nonbuffs of language, and they like them better too. For the sake of argument, in fact, I’ll venture that they are better, stylistically; that my preference is not merely personal. One might propose all sorts of reasons for the improvement—that the first rewritten sentence is cleaner, that putting adverbs at the ends of sentences gives them punch, and so on.

But here’s what I’m wondering. If the improvement in the sentences is a result, as it seems to be, of Q’s desire to rejoin unfortunately split infinitives, is the so-called rule useful, at least to Q? Further, if we are trying to improve writing in our students’ or colleagues’ work, is it useful to pick the no-split-infinitives canard out of the dustbin and shake it clean, simply that it might get those folks to look closely at their syntax and rethink for the sake of elegance and clarity? After all, teaching elegance and clarity is a daunting task; if a certain tool is useful in the enterprise, I’m for keeping it in working order.

Or does the damage done by trying to hog-tie infinitives outweigh the benefit of giving people like Q a tool by which they write better? I am not seeking to answer these questions. I hope only that, to follow Chekhov’s dictum, I am asking it correctly. I welcome readers’ thoughts.

 

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