[LMB] OT: split infinitives, was OT: Terry Pratchett

John Lennard john.c.lennard at gmail.com
Tue Sep 21 22:49:52 BST 2021


William: >As I understand it, split infinitives were outlawed because you
can?t do it Latin.

Marc: Grammatical prescriptivists, who had an almost fetishistic respect for
Latin, decided it should't be done.  "Outlawed" is overstating the case,
though.

John: Overstating, certainly, but also mis-stating.

It is perfectly true that Latin infinitive forms, being single words,
cannot be split. But the analytical nature of English, with a two-word form
of infinitive, means it can be ; and that creates (a) a mild imperative to
keep the words together, especially as (b) meaning can be at stake, 'only
to go' and  'to go only' -not- meaning the same thing, and 'to only go'
being ambiguous, while (c) sensible writers have always recognised both
rule of thumb and exploitative opportunity.

The problem with *Star Trek*'s famous `'to boldly go" was that the
producers intended it as a claim of desirable attraction to such bold
going, and did -not- expect it to become the world's best-known example of
careless commercial language.

Conversely, the single best split infinitive I am aware of is in e e
cummings's novel *The Enormous Room* -- "to in any way (however slightingly
of insinuatingly) insult a potato". Now -that- is a split infinitive that
-knows- what it is doing, so all is well ; it's unthinking or unaware
splitting that is grammatically ugly-without-profit, while risking meaning.

-- 
John Lennard, MA DPhil. (Oxon.), MA (WU)

Associate Member, Hughes Hall, Cambridge
Independent Scholar
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