To boldly split infinitives

Have you ever noticed that Stephen Fry will never split an infinitive?

In the 1920s Fowler commented in ‘Modern English Usage‘ that there were four groups of people when it came to the vexed question of whether or not it was acceptable to split and infinitive: those who knew what an infinitive was and avoided splitting them, those who knew and discriminated, those who neither knew nor cared and those who didn’t know what an infinitive was and cared deeply.  It was a fair comment in those days of fearful snobbery based on arcane rules.  These days no-one apart from Stephen Fry cares, though some of us do know.

Star Trek provided us with the classic split infinitive ‘to boldly go …‘   This is a useful example because it shows us the different nuances suggested by where you place the adverb:  ‘… boldly to go …’ suggests that it was bold of them to do it even if they were actually shivering in their boots at the time.  On the other hand ‘… to go boldly …’ implies puffed out chests and strutting strides.  The split version blurs both meanings together.  Thus we have a choice of three different nuanced meanings, and most of the time I find my meaning is served best by splitting the infinitive.  After all, there is no rule to say that ‘they boldly go‘ is wrong.  Stephen Fry seems to put the adverb before the infinitive, but if I have to avoid splitting an infinitive for some reason I find I usually prefer to put the adverb after the verb.

However I think the whole thing is an irrelevance.   The idea of not splitting an infinitive came about when the rules of Latin were applied to English by the classics-obsessed grammarians of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  But English is the bastard love-child of Germanic and Romance languages and all the more vigorous for that.  Latin grammar is irrelevant to English.  The key feature of Latin is that words were modified by changing their endings, so it was physically impossible to split an infinitive in Latin because it was just one word.   We do still do this to some extent in English:  he / his / him, me / my / mine, change / changes / changing / changed, and so on.  But the real work of modifying meaning is achieved by word placement and by tacking words together with those very hard-working but almost invisible two or three letter words which help us out so much in Scrabble.

So though I delight in the way that Stephen Fry writes and reads English, and am impressed by the deftness with which he avoids splitting his infinitives, I personally fall into Fowler’s category of those who know but discriminate.  These days, thankfully, just about everyone else falls intot the group of those who neither know nor care.

5 responses to “To boldly split infinitives

  1. I’m with you in the knowing and discriminating category, though I find in speech I barely notice. It’s only when I’m writing that my attention is drawn to the state of my infinitives.

    Great post!

  2. I oscillate between knowing and caring to knowing but discriminating.

    Depends how arsey or obsessive I’m feeling 8)

  3. Mr Fry may well be a grammar Nazi…nothing wrong with that but his understanding of chemistry leaves much to be desired.

    In one of the QI shows he said oodles of marks would be available if someone got an up-coming difficult question correct.

    It was a chemical equation and Helen Atkinson-Wood got it straight away. It was basically the chemical equation for combustion or if a biologist aspiration. He was stunned by this which shows that although he is well versed with many things and can read stuff from the QI Elves for the first time and sound as though he has known it for years he let his guard down on this one and exposed one of hie weaknesses.

  4. Oh and personally, I would rather know the ins & outs of how things combust…a split infinitive never killed anyone.

  5. I’m really sorry about the typos, and it’s very kind of you not to mention them. I blasted this out before I went in to work on morning, and have actually been away since.

    I think we are more careful when we write, Charlotte. I’m brewing a post about prepositions and all my examples are from conversation rather than writing. Anal Retention is me.

    Arsey’s good, Shrink. Cool is good too.

    Not a surprise that Stephen Fry is a scientifignoramaus, Alfster. It’s disappointing, but not surprising. Have you heard the early In Our Time’s when you can hear Melvyn Bragg really sweat over the maths and science subjects. IN fairness to him, he perseveres. C P Snow argued that a cultured person, (or man, in the 1950s), should be equally educated in Humanities and Science. Alas, we are if anything worse and more biased now than we were then. (Incidentally Helen Atkinson-Wood’s Wikipedia entry says: “She holds the record for the highest score in a single episode of QI, with 200 points, gained from one question on the chemistry of exploding custard.” She’s obviously a chemo-geek).

    Cheers all, for commenting.

    Aphra.

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