1 October 2004

Split infinitives

A recent featured article on Wikipedia covered split infinitives [Wikipedia]. I ranted about those in a very prescriptivist manner a while back. The Wikipedia entry presents both sides, but their examples don't fully present the arguments against, and miss an argument for.

The article uses "He failed to completely understand the book" as an example of a sentence difficult to extricate from its split infinity. Grammatically viable solutions such as "He completely failed to understand the book" and "He failed to understand the book completely" have logically disjunctive meanings to the original. The example sentence communicates that the reader understood only part of the book's content. The fixed-but-flawed sentences communicate that the reader understood none of the book.

If we agree that the split infinitive corrupts the meaning of the example sentence (however slightly) and seek to change that, another option would be to rewrite the sentence as "He understood only part of the book." This has the same number of words as the original but is arguably more lucid. Instead of saying "he failed X" and having the content of the failed action contained in the verbal clause, it says "he understood X" and makes the content of the "understanding" a noun phrase.

There is an argument supporting split infinitives that I've never seen expressed (to my less-than-omniscient knowledge). Why is the treatment of infinitives different from the treatment of auxiliaries? For example, the modal auxiliaries such as "could" and "want" seem to have no restrictions on their proximity to the main verb. "I could really understand the book" looked on as a "split modal" has none of the stigma attached to it that the split infinitive examples do. Why is that?

In the end, this is one of those Apple-is-better-than-Microsoft arguments that should probably be avoided in public.

[ posted by sstrader on 1 October 2004 at 11:37:36 AM in Language & Literature ]