Install Theme

Your web-browser is very outdated, and as such, this website may not display properly. Please consider upgrading to a modern, faster and more secure browser. Click here to do so.

Muse & Me

The uncomplicated internal dialogues of an author...
Nov 14 '12

Style (7): Split Infinitives

  • Me: Split infinitives.
  • Muse: And I’m already bored.
  • Me: Seriously...
  • Muse: I am seriously bored. This conversation is boring beyond belief. It is actually covered by not one, not two, but three international treaties on grammatical weaponry. You can be arrested for even talking to me about it. Like Chemical Ali and Dr Germ and Semantic Simon.
  • Me: That last one is made up.
  • Muse: Shouldn’t be.
  • Me: Grammatical Gareth, maybe?
  • Muse: Funny man.
  • Me: Why are split infinitives boring? It’s like grammar’s answer to the Rumble in the Jungle.
  • Muse: Because it’s NOT like that. It’s total nonsense. Ohhh... FINE. Here we go. The original prohibition is vacuous. Okay? It’s in the same category as that idiocy about “which” and “that” in restrictive clauses -
  • Me: Of which we know you are not fond.
  • Muse: Foot-binding. It is like foot-binding.
  • Me: So you say.
  • Muse: I do. Anyway, it’s also like that crazy bugger who wanted to remove Latinate words from common usage and replace them with Germanic ones, so we’d lose “impassable” in favour of “ungothroughable”.
  • Me: Do we know why he wanted to do this?
  • Muse: No. I assume he had some ideological objection to Italians. Anyway, at root it’s like that.
  • Me: “Ungothroughable” is a somewhat awesome word.
  • Muse: In the same way that the Aston Martin they made which looks like a Dodge Charger is a somewhat awesome car. It’s nice that it exists, because it’s insane, but you wouldn’t actually buy one.
  • Me: True.
  • Muse: Yes.
  • Me: So does using a split infinitive actually mean something different from using the approved word-order?
  • Muse: Well, aside from the fact that very often the approved word order is RIDICULOUS, yes it does.
  • Me: Really?
  • Muse: It’s about primacy of emphasis. English conveys a lot of meaning with word order and emphasis, probably because it’s uninflected. Or maybe it’s uninflected because it can use those things instead and doesn’t need endings very much. Um. Where was I?
  • Me: Primacy of -
  • Muse: Emphasis! Yes. So look: “to gently advance his hand upon her thigh” is different from “to advance his hand gently upon her thigh”. In the first, the gentleness is at the forefront of his mind and defines the action. In the second, there’s a subsequent imposition of gentleness upon the action of advancing. Because, quite simply, you learn about the quality of the action before the action itself in the first version, and the action before the quality in the second. Okay?
  • Me: I think so, yes. What about “to boldly go”?
  • Muse: That’s an outlier. It’s so well-known that it no longer really works as an example. But I think it holds, actually.
  • Me: So far I am not finding this conversation boring.
  • Muse: Ahhh, but the infuriating bit comes next. None of what I just said is remotely important. It’s the grammatical equivalent of an oxbow lake; a backwater into which no freshness can flow. It is cut off for ever. Because the issue is such a hot button for so many very, very bored columnists and teachers and grammar bullshit artists that any use of a split infinitive is by definition a talking point. Whatever nuance you were looking for instantly vanishes under a slurry of debate. It stops the eye, sidetracks the brain, kills the thread of the narrative. So even though there’s really not that much wrong with a split infinitive for its own sake, you can’t actually use one unless you’re making a Jean-Luc Picard joke. This entire discussion is dead until people stop having it.
  • Me: Oh.
  • Muse: The Opsanim people of the high Jaspi Plateau have a word for this kind of thing.
  • Me: Really?
  • Muse: Yes. They call it “bugfuck annoying”.
  • Me: ... I’m assuming you just made them up.
  • Muse: There is more chance that I did not than that anyone will ever be able to use a split infinitive without having to march through an oncoming tide of idiots.
  • Me: You’re right, that is boring.
  • Muse: Tell me.
  1. muse-and-me posted this