3. There has come to be a set of conventional split-infinitive clichés that permeate much of contemporary writing and speech. This set includes the improper use of such adverbs as really, only, better, successfully, actually, as well as negating adverbs, such as not and never.

a.  The first problem involves such adverbs as really and only.
Their insertion as infinitive-splitters is, in fact, a false placement. They are shoved in before the infinitive root as if they were supposed to modify “the verb” [root] when they actually modify (as an adverb, or even as an adjective) a word or phrase farther in the sentence. Thus we see, with the true object of the adverb's modification underlined:

To really go fast …  To go really fast

To only speak the truth …  To speak only the truth

This error is the result of sloppy thinking, of inattention to the fact that adverbs are used to impart greater meaning, clarity or emphasis (otherwise, we wouldn’t use them!), and that this meaning, clarity or emphasis changes—and can change drastically—depending on where adverbs are made to appear within a phrase.

If the point of your utterance is to modify the verbal action itself, as in emphasizing (from the example above) speaking versus writing, the adverb must precede the infinitive: "Only to speak the truth" makes the ictus, the natural, rhythmic accent fall on the first and third words (the third, in particular), which are exactly the phonemes that you want to emphasize in such a phrase. Thus, such limiting adverbs always precede the full verb form they modify.

b.  When one deals in particular with the word “better”—which appears ad nauseum in the hackneyed, clichéd, Marketing-Department-bullshit, pseudo-phrase “to better serve you”— the problem created comes from the fact that “better” can itself be used as a verb, plus the fact that it yet can also appear as an adjective or an adverb. Thus the word itself must be used with great care so as to distinguish its meaning, and to avoid even momentary confusion.

Thus, the same kind of usage-confusion that starts with the multiply-defined phoneme /tu:/ is carried along further, without resolution, by the speaker’s sticking “better” into the wrong position. (The units modified by the word better are underlined, below.)

 

/tu:/ better ???   ::   To better our service   [“to better” is itself an infinitive] 
/tu:/ better ???   ::   Two better reasons [“two better” are adjectives
modifying “reasons”]
/tu:/ better ???   ::   To better serve you … [“to serve” is the infinitive:
to serve you” is the infinitive
phrase, fatally split by the
adverb “better”]

An additional problem that arises from such use of what could possibly end up being a verb in the infinitive-splitting position is that the phoneme /tu:/ can also be heard as /du:/, so that what is actually the imperative of “to do” with an elided object (an adverbial objective: “do better [things]”), or an adverbial modifier (“do [things] better”), depending on the intended (but subtle) message within its context:

                                 /du:/ better ???     ::     Do better than you have so far …

The logically proper place for such adverbial constructs as “better” is after the infinitive. This puts it in a position that establishes that it modifies the entire infinitive phrase. This is also the position of emphasis, which is—after all—the very reason for using an adverb in the first place!

To better serve you… [To serve you]::better

c.  The situation with the negating adverbs is that they are too often placed erroneously as if they negated only the verbal (the infinitive root) and not the entire infinitive.

To fix this, all negating adverbs must precede the infinitive (or infinitive phrase!) that they negate.

To not speak the truth …  Not to speak the truth

To never go fast … Never to go fast

To not better serve you … Not to serve you better

To not better our service … Not to better our service

To be, or not to be: this is an unsplit infinitive!

d.  Programmer-speak has enshrined even more split-infinitive clichés within current misuse. Two of the most flagrant ones involve the adverbs permanently and successfully.

Each of these adverbs has been formed from an adjective, and it appears that the programmers who wrote the infinitives using these adverbs didn't know the difference between adjectives and adverbs. Nor were they aware that just because and adverb may have been formed from an adjective does not mean that the adverb has to be put—or should be put—into the adjective's position!

Do you want to permanently delete this file?

We were unable to successfully write this file.

As mentioned, this confusion appears to have come from a naive, simplistic reliance on the placement of those adjectives on which the adverbs are based:

 Do you want permanent deletion of this file?

We were unable to achieve successful writing of this file.

However, what programmers, software designers, technical (and non-technical) writers, professors, newsreaders, meteorologists, and other flagrantly frequent offenders must learn is that adjectives and adverbs are distinct parts of speech: they have different functions as well as separate and unique rules of placement!

These adverbs modify the entire infinitive phrase, therefore it is completely illogical to shove them down into, and smother them within the infintive. As adverbs, they are by nature designed to lend emphasis, completion, or in some way to extend or to enliven further the meaning of the word, phrase or clause that they modify. This is why they must be put into a place of clarity and emphasis, and no other.

In the first sentence, permanently modifies the entire infinitive phrase. (It is required in order to handle the difference between modern software-design's ambiguous misuse of deletion to mean both true deletion and the pseudo-deletion of removing a file into a temporary, out of the way location, holding it before true deletion.)

In the second sentence, successfully actually modifies all the words—the core phrase—of its sentence: it is a redundant intensifier. (It is redundant because being unable itself contains the idea of failure to be successful; if you omit successfully, the meaning of the sentence does not change.) [Such redundancy is common in "scientific" jargon, particularly with the words "together" (to weld together, to join together, etc.) and the word "time", as in the puerile phrase, "during this time period."]

 Do you want to delete this file permanently?

We were unable to write this file successfully.

 


 

Comments   

 
0 #1 Ryan Bissell 2013-09-22 00:49
Thank you, I aspire to never again split an infinitive!
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