Split infinitives: still a menace?
October 10, 2004 3:31 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone still get upset about split infinitives? [more inside]

I've been given this little sheet of grammar exercises to do, with answers, as 'self-diagnosis'. Some of them are completely ridiculous: apparently "to boldly go" should be "to go boldly" -- pah, rubbish. Other weird ones include "it was certainly him" being corrected to "it was certainly he" and "practiced" being called an incorrect spelling (with "practised" offered as a correction), when it's just an Americanism. Can I safely ignore this stuff? It reeks of musty unused old rules to me.
posted by reklaw to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
"It was he" or "It is I" are correct, rather than "It was him" or "It's me." "Him" and "me" and such are only used when they are objects, either of a sentence or of a preposition. In this case, "he" and "I" aren't objects, but rather "predicate nominatives." A predicate nominative is the same thing as the subject, so you use a the pronouns "I" and "he" and such with them.

I hear people use it the wrong way more often than the right way.

Merriam-Webster online agrees that "practiced" and "practised" are both correct. For more info on the split, check out Wikipedia.

Split infinitives are more troublesome. The controversy dates back only to the 18th century. Once again, the Wikipedia has the details.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 3:54 PM on October 10, 2004


I advise people to avoid unnecessarily splitting (ha-ha!) infinitives, out of recognition that, at times, it looks goofy and forced to do so.
posted by waldo at 3:58 PM on October 10, 2004


Can I safely ignore this stuff?

Depends on the circumstances, dunnit? Why were you given a sheet to diagnose yourself?

If The Man gave it you -- if it's for a class or for work -- do what The Man says to do, at least for now.

In regular life, let your ear be the guide, and try out a couple of alternatives. I'd only avoid having a bunch of stuff between the to and the verb.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:06 PM on October 10, 2004


Yeah, it was The Man, for a class... but I'm tempted to tell The Man where to stick his split infinitives.

Another odd one: "the media is" vs. "the media are", "the data is" vs. "the data are". I can see the reasoning behind using "are", but it sounds forced and daft to me.
posted by reklaw at 4:12 PM on October 10, 2004


I'm on the side which says the rule about not splitting infinitives is for hyper-corrective pedants. But, as in many grammar and style issues, when conventional wisdom and expert knowledge disagree, it is best to rewrite to avoid the question entirely.
posted by Mo Nickels at 4:14 PM on October 10, 2004


I had a class in college that successfully convinced the professor that split infinitives were no longer a mistake, and he stopped marking them wrong. Unfortunately the only reason we won our argument was that we found "authorities" who agreed with us.

...in my own view, the hoo-ha about split infinitives comes from a misplaced reliance on latin & greek as the only appropriate foundations for the english language.

"media is/are" might result from a mismatch between American English & British English (British English being the usual exemplar of "proper" language use). In american usage large groups/organizations are typically referred to as a monolithic unit, rather than as a collection of parts. I've noticed that UK writers tend not to do this, and refer to (for example) large companies as though it were a plurality, rather than a single entity. So in the US we'd say the "media is" because "The Media" is a single entity in our minds, whereas in the UK it might not be.

I dunno, that last bit is based largely on chatting with my UK friends -- not on any actual study.
posted by aramaic at 4:23 PM on October 10, 2004


I studied Latin and understand the anal tendencies people have about proper grammar (everyone has his pet peeves). But I've never succumbed to "data are." That just sounds like diarrhea to my ears. It's on par with "an historical." Regardless of right or wrong, it just sounds like crap.

It's important to understand the context in which your reader is interpreting your writing. If you're studying it in the context of, say, an English class with a professor who prides himself on catching you on every comma splice or split infinitive, you're just going to have to learn the rules in order to appease him. But in terms of writing text that appeals to a general reader, I think it's much more important to write conversationally than staying 100% true to the "rules." Not everyone reads with the capacity that a graduate degree in English might afford (Hell, I'd venture to say most people barely read better than they did in high school), so communicating to them in simple, conversational terms instead of archaic, rigid text is often more productive to the end result (helping to get the reader from point A to point B).

One of my professor's favourite metaphors described the reader as a person in a swamp -- and it's your job to pull him out as quickly and effectively as possible. Following all the "rules" might be "right," but it might cause your reader to be distracted. I'd say it falls into the old saying: "You gotta know the rules in order to break them."
posted by Hankins at 4:51 PM on October 10, 2004


"data are" is correct. this is something i get wrong sometimes and it looks bad (at least in my circles - since i work on software that processes data, this is quite a biggy).

i would have thought "the media" was a collective noun these days.

and i didn't think practice having an s when it's a verb was an americanism, particularly - i thought either c or s was acceptable in english english for the verb (but only c for the noun).
posted by andrew cooke at 4:54 PM on October 10, 2004


oh, didn't mean to so flatly contradict hankins on the data thing - just stating my experience (without using preview...)
posted by andrew cooke at 4:55 PM on October 10, 2004


just remember to rarely split the infinitive.
posted by Grod at 5:25 PM on October 10, 2004


To this English prof, at least, "media is/are" would depend on how you were using "media" in the first place. "Big media"=singular; artist working in "multiple media"=plural. But, strictly speaking, media and data are plurals. It's just that you so rarely see "datum." (People also tend to trip up on "criterion" vs. "criteria.")

"It was certainly he" is correct. Sorry.

I do whack students for comma splices. Split infinitives, though, don't bother me a whit. But I'm still holding the fort on "their" as a plural, thanks, although I'm aware that the ground is slowly but surely slipping away from under my feet...

But in terms of writing text that appeals to a general reader, I think it's much more important to write conversationally than staying 100% true to the "rules."

The "rules" are about writing for a general reader, aren't they? It's difficult, after all, to read an essay filled with misplaced modifiers, whether the essay in question is "conversational" or otherwise.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:27 PM on October 10, 2004


Aramaic: The most obvious example of that split is with bands - like rock groups. Americans will say "U2 is releasing a new single", whereas the British will say "U2 are releasing ...".

To British ears, the American usage sounds something like "The Yankees is having a good season, isn't it?" would to an American.
posted by bonaldi at 5:54 PM on October 10, 2004


Yeah, it was The Man, for a class... but I'm tempted to tell The Man where to stick his split infinitives

I wouldn't bother. I'd do what The Man says while you're under his thumb, and then tell people what a tool The Man is after you've eggs-caped, or sit with the quiet contentment that arises from being The Man making an ass out of himself.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:04 PM on October 10, 2004


It's me, in conversational English, is correct, and It is I is not correct. In written English, however, it's not accepted to write It is I (for example, in your thesis).

At least in the spoken language, if more people are doing it the "wrong" way, it's actually the right way. Prescriptive grammar is bullshit, and doesn't govern real languages. In real languages, the grammar is governed by the language.
posted by oaf at 6:27 PM on October 10, 2004


"It was certainly he" is correct. Sorry.

"It was certainly him" is correct. Sorry. The "rule" about using the alleged "predicate nominative" is taken over lock stock & barrel from Latin. English is not Latin. In English, a pronoun following a verb is in the objective form (me, him, &c). There are, and probably will always be, people who hold on to the antiquated, invented "rule," but there is no need to kowtow to them.

Similarly, "media" and "data" are Latin plurals; this does not make them English plurals. As they are more and more used as singulars, they become English singulars. The same thing happened to "agenda" a long time ago. (By contrast, "peas" used to be a singular -- remember "Pease porridge hot"? But it sounds like a plural, so now it is.)

And the split infinitive thing is just silly.

On preview: what oaf said.
posted by languagehat at 6:47 PM on October 10, 2004


Like oaf said, rules describe the language, rather than preceding them as a prescription. Imagine yourself as a third person, with a grasp of colloquial English appropriate to your intended audience, reading your work. If it seems fine, then it's fine.
posted by Gyan at 7:30 PM on October 10, 2004


obligatory reference to The Language Instinct by Stephen Pinker, a Chomsky disciple and advocate of split infinitives.

The "rules" are about writing for a general reader, aren't they?

The general schoolteacher readership of the previous century, yes. "The general reader" doesn't know what an infinitive is.
posted by bingo at 7:46 PM on October 10, 2004


I've always felt that the prescriptivists had some deep fear that if language is allowed to go where it may, that it will be dumbed down and awkward, that it will lose its richness.

It's the converse, however, that is true. Language acquired its richness because it was allowed to develop and grow and spawn dialects and spawn entire new languages. The natural tendency, I suspect, is toward greater complexity not less.

I suspect if we had global Latin prescriptivists we might not have had Spanish and French and Italian. They would have been nipped at the bud.
posted by vacapinta at 8:13 PM on October 10, 2004


If you want to be a jerk about it, here's a quote to memorize for the margin of your next test:

"This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." -- Winston Churchill.

If the test creator thinks he's going to beat a president's opinion on the matter, he's sorely mistaken.

Here is a site which is often correct (although I take issue with his opinion on ceratin matters). The man running it holds a PhD from Indiana University.

Trying to go up against the man is going to be a waste of your time, though. My suggestion to you is to follow his silly rules until "the man" can't oppress you anymore, at which point if you actually still care about this, you may wish to forward copies of that test along with copies of various PhDs opinions on the matter to his boss.

The one thing you can successfully take exception to on this test would be the spelling suggestion. If your preferred spelling exists in the major dictionaries (Merriam Webster's, Oxford English) you should correct the teacher in private. Nicely.

This is coming from someone who did pooly in english because I suck at writing books and I suck at picking essay topics. I rarely would see a red mark regarding grammar or spelling, and when it was there for spelling, I was almost always able to convince the teacher to correct his error.

Regarding he/him; an example is included there, and "him" is most certainly the correct word. This usage note pertains to this topic. And, alt.usage.english to the rescue.

And, for "an historical", if you want to hear why it is "an", ask a non-posh person from london to say it for you your way.
posted by shepd at 8:56 PM on October 10, 2004


I still get annoyed about split infinitives, but it is almost a meta-annoyance at this point. I have lately introduced an occasional split infinitive into spoken language; no one has commented.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:25 PM on October 10, 2004


    "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." -- Winston Churchill. If the test creator thinks he's going to beat a president's opinion on the matter, he's sorely mistaken.
Quick thing - in the UK, they don't have Presidents. Churchill was Prime Minister.
posted by benzo8 at 9:26 PM on October 10, 2004


And, more to the point, he won a nobel prize for literature.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:44 PM on October 10, 2004


Since this is a thread for pedantry, he was First Lord of the Treasury. Ho hum.
posted by bonaldi at 9:45 PM on October 10, 2004


...and, speaking of actual Presidents and the authority they have over how to put a sentence together...well...'nuff said.
posted by bingo at 9:49 PM on October 10, 2004


I can't find a link, but I seem to remember a story from a university campus in the northeast, cataloging a set of campus reactions to the one style guide's (Chicago?) admission that sometimes it might be better to split an infinitive than to subject one's readers to an extraordinarily painful circumlocution. That's the set-up; here's the punchline:

One stodgy old faculty member's reaction when hearing this news: "I do not dine with those who split infinitives." One student's response to that hard line stance: "Yeah, well who'd want to fucking dine with that guy?" Game. Set. Match.
posted by .kobayashi. at 10:30 PM on October 10, 2004


benzo8, my-my-my, aren't we on the ball?

/me slaps self.

hey... what are you doing in my chips?
posted by shepd at 11:56 PM on October 10, 2004


There is one excellent reason to cling to the split infinitive rule, and that is that it allows one to send Trekkies into fits of apoplexy.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 6:32 AM on October 11, 2004


I suspect if we had global Latin prescriptivists we might not have had Spanish and French and Italian. They would have been nipped at the bud.

You underestimate the impotence of prescriptivists. There were Latin prescriptivists; one of them urged students, very much in the manner of your fourth-grade English teacher, never to say that awful slangy caballus for 'horse' but always to use the proper Latin word equus. Didn't do much good, because the Romance words are descended from caballus.
posted by languagehat at 8:40 AM on October 11, 2004


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