English: Split Infinitives and Egos

Posted on February 7, 2013. Filed under: English, grammar, Journalism, language | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Your words for the day:

  • infinitive = the word “to” followed by a “verb form” (e.g., to go)
  • split infinitive = an infinitive verb form with an element, usually an adverb, interposed between to and the verb form (e.g., to boldly go)

To improve my smarts before opening my mouth, I went to the web to see what the Great Learned had to say on the subject.  From search results, I clicked on a Yahoo! item which was sponsored by a Yahoo! affiliate Houghton Mifflin.  Since this article defined my subject AND ALSO echoed my rhetoric about the Great Learned‘s LIARS status (LIARS, Feb 24, 2012)…   that’s as far as I researched.  Don’t rock the boat ‘n’ all that.

How luscious.  That article provided two delightful fruits for my cynic’s taste buds:

  • Usage History.  The split infinitive has been around since the 14th century.
  • Ruled out.  The Great Learned gave it a name and condemned its use in the 19th century.

It took 500 years for the Great Learned to get snooty about the argot of the Great Unwashed (i.e., all those ignorant Not Great Learned…   the General Public).  Noting that the claimed impetus for this pre-emptive action was grounded in the Latin usage for the derivative, Mifflin‘s article stated that “English is not Latin” and is premised differently.  The ruling, then, is arbitrary and incorrectly applied.  That appraisal also coincides with my earlier assertions in Why Not Me? Feb 27, 2012.

It is possibly NOT a coincidence that a number of famous writers are cited in the article as being perpetrators of this heinous infarction…   infraction…   heinous infraction of infinitive usage, which really wasn’t an infraction until the Great Learned said that it was…   after considering it for 500 years.

Published writings became widely available and popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and, authors who, by and large, were NOT university scholars became the Madonnas and Justin Biebers of then pop-icon-ism (stay with me; I make ’em up as I go).  Until then, it was the educated scholars of recognized universities who were the darlings of media offerings, which, if you don’t count the town crier, was pretty much limited to printed stuff. Distressingly for The Learned, about all this new breed needed to become a published somebody was basic understanding of a written language, some knowledge about the selected subject, and a commercial appeal to make it sellable.  Those works were fiction and human interest, and, as such, not subject to being criticized on procedural or technical grounds. 

The famous authors cited in the Mifflin article delighted in the use of the split infinitive and utilized it to turn a neat phrase and make their offerings more picturesque.  The scholarly Great Learned, who had entered at the ground floor of the university and spent their whole lives making their way upward into the musty attic of the academic ivory tower, were no longer the sole beneficiaries of public adoration.  Disgustingly, they had to share that limelight with upstart, under-educated “writers.”

These Great Learned, basically, had an institutionalized mentality and found it difficult to think “outside the box.”  Eventually, one  of them observed that it was the impressive and descriptive use of English that made the new darlings shine.  So, to redirect the spotlight, the Great Learned cornered a popular and long-lived grammatical construction, labeled it a “split infinitive” and summarily declared it “unacceptable.”  The Great Learned’s new mantra:  “Split infinitive bad;  famous writers not so hot.”

…that would be the same motivation as a toddler banging a metal spoon against a metal pot:  “Look at me; look at me!”

The Mifflin article concludes that split infinitives are fine (and colorful) so long as one does not displace the adverbs; too close to the wrong noun, and, the intended meaning of the sentence can be changed.  With that, I gotta split from this article.

___________________________

Next up:  Puppet Masters?  Knee Jerks?  Arrogance?  Decisions, decisions…

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