When it becomes a must to split infinitives for clarity’s sake

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Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

An American reader, C. Gordon Hale, posted this response to my January 4 column:

“Thank you for condemning the excessive use of ‘at the end of the day’ and similarly annoying clichés. But not only in the Philippines have both spoken and written English become badly corrupted by vulgar colloquialisms and abysmal grammar. The state of contemporary English usage in the U.S. is truly lamentable!

“Please forgive me, but I couldn’t help but react to the split infinitives in your paragraphs 9 and 10—‘to never again’—really?”

I expressed my appreciation to Gordon for sharing my serious concern over the “at the end of the day” plague, and as to my use of split infinitives, I commented in passing: “I actually split them at will for stylistic purposes, but I’m also aware that splitting infinitives indiscriminately can be bad for prose.”


Let me now address more fully the matter of splitting infinitives.

To put things in context, I would like to emphasize that although most authorities in modern English grammar have dropped the objection to split infinitives, their usage continues to invite controversy. My personal position though is that unless splitting an infinitive results in bad syntax or semantics, taking recourse to it shouldn’t be cause for debate.

Consider the two instances where I appear to have split an infinitive in the paragraphs referred to by Gordon (italicizations below mine):

“Second, public officials from the national level down to the local governments should undergo an English reorientation program designed to, among others, curb their predilection for using ‘at the end of the day’ and other dreadful clichés in public speaking engagements and media interviews.

“And third, TV and radio network owners should seriously consider penalizing talk-show hosts or news anchors with hefty fines for overusing ‘at the end of the day’ and such clichés, and to never again invite talk-show guests who habitually spout them more than, say, twice in a row during a particular show.”

In the first paragraph, Gordon appears to consider the phrase “to, among others, curb their predilection for using ‘at the end of the day’” as an infinitive phrase split by the adverbial “among others.” Grammatically, however, it’s not a split infinitive phrase, for its “to” is actually not an infinitive marker but a preposition of purpose that links the verb “designed” to its complement “curb their predilection.” Even assuming for the sake of argument that the form in question is an infinitive phrase, it still would be necessary to split it for clarity’s sake. For when unsplit, that phrase would read as follows: “an English reorientation program designed, among others, to curb their predilection.” This gives the wrong idea that several English reorientation programs were designed for one purpose, not only one program designed for several purposes.

In the second paragraph, to make the statement more emphatic, I split the infinitive phrase “to invite talk-show guests” by inserting “never again,” resulting in the genuine split infinitive “to never again invite talk-show guests who habitually spout them.” Now see how confusing that statement becomes when the infinitive phrase is unsplit and the adverbial “never again” is placed ahead of it: “…TV and radio network owners should seriously consider never again to invite talk-show guests who habitually spout them.” Here, “never again” has become a squinting modifier, seemingly modifying both the verb “consider” and the infinitive “to invite.”

That statement gets even more troublesome in tone and syntax when, just to avoid splitting the infinitive, “never again” is positioned after it: “…TV and radio network owners should seriously consider to invite talk-show guests never again who habitually spout them more than, say, twice in a row during a particular show.”

We thus can see that unless splitting the infinitive results in bad syntax or semantics, it really should be considered airtight usage.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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2 Comments

  1. C. Gordon Hale on

    Your point is well taken. I will gladly concede that clarity has a higher priority than quibbling over grammatical fine points. I’m happy my comment gave you material for another column.

    I should add I was delighted recently to discover when visiting an elementary school English class in the remote province of Abra the teacher had the children diagramming sentences on the blackboard, just as I recall doing in my school days a very long time ago! I’m imagine that practice has long since disappeared from American classrooms.