x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Splitting hairs vs spilling blood: the split infinitive debate

My word: In one corner are those who avoid splitting infinitives. In the other corner are champions of the notion that infinitives are, indeed, there to boldly split.

To wilfully split an infinitive, as I have just done, is an act likely to cause intense dismay to discerning readers. That is not to say everyone in the English-speaking world would be troubled. Plenty of people do not even know what split infinitives are, or know perfectly well but never give them a second thought. However, that leaves two opposing factions for whom they have long been the subject of animated debate.

In one corner we find those who will go to extraordinary syntactic lengths to avoid splitting infinitives, and who deplore their use by others. In the other corner are champions of the notion that infinitives are, indeed, there to boldly split. Having consulted a range of authorities, I have good and bad news for both camps. It is actually the same piece of news, but will be seen as good by infinitive splitters and bad by their grammatical adversaries. The plain fact is that no one should ever lose sleep worrying whether the practice is right or wrong.

I used to care quite a lot. Convinced since school days that placing an adverb between the "to" and the verb was indefensible, I would remove examples of the crime when editing the work of others and suppress any stray temptation to use one of my own. But I came to realise that the reasoning on which my objection was based were open to challenge. It was not that split infinitives suddenly became attractive; on the contrary, they still strike me as peculiarly charmless constructions. When my duties included advising editorial staff of The National on matters of style, I recommended avoidance, where possible, because it was apparent that many readers did consider them a mark of sloppy writing.

My heart is still with those readers. When I picked up the latest edition of The Connexion, a monthly newspaper for English-speaking residents of France, and saw the main front-page headline, "France's red tape to all go online", I shuddered. It is true that one obvious solution available to the sub-editor - moving "all" to the beginning of the headline - would have been unsuitable because of its effect on line breaks. But why not simply change the wording to " ... all to go online"? The answer is probably that the sub-editor saw no reason to do anything at all.

Dr CT Onions, the author of An Advanced English Syntax and, less relevantly though it demonstrates his erudition, The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, agreed that constant and unguarded use was not to be encouraged. But while acknowledging that, to some, split infinitives would always seem "inelegant and un-English", he added: "On the other hand, it may be said that its occasional use is of advantage in circumstances where it is desired to avoid ambiguity."

He quoted an example from HW Fowler - "our object is to further cement trade relations" - where any attempt to unsplit "to further cement" caused unnecessary confusion about the intended meaning. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary definition of split infinitives offers "she seems to really like it", and this usage does seem impossible to fault as it puts the emphasis in precisely the right place.

The COED is dismissive of the reliance put by traditionalists on an analogy between Latin and English as grounds for opposition. In Latin, infinitives cannot be split because they consist of only one word. "But English is not the same as Latin," the dictionary's note states, "and the avoidance of a split infinitive can change the emphasis of a sentence or sound awkward (as in 'she seems really to like it')."

The debate is not quite as old as the hills, but it is old nevertheless. No later than 1972, but possibly as long ago as 1942, depending on which edition of Usage and Abusage first contained his thoughts on the issue, the New Zealand-born scholar and author Eric Partridge smartly summarised what has independently become my own view. "Avoid the split infinitive wherever possible," he wrote. "But if it is the clearest and the most natural construction, use it boldly. The angels are on our side."

Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and can be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae