How To Not Like Talk Or Like Write, Dude

Inattention to grammatical or structural details moves the workload of understanding
from the speaker to the listener, from the writer to the reader,
and guarantees boredom, resentment or misunderstanding.

 

Split Infinitives
OR

How To Like A Programmer Or Scientist Talk

 

An infinitive is a single unit,
composed of the particle ‘to’ plus the present stem of the verb.
The Qualls Concise English Grammar §7.24

The fact is that, to those who are uninformed, unpracticed or disconcerted, split infinitives don’t matter—these individuals apparently haven’t had a chance to know any better, they are unimformed of their detrimental effects on communication, or they just don’t care.

Yet to those of us who do understand the problem, a split infinitive slams the door of perception, in what turn out to be flacid attempts at communication. The creator of a split infinitive comes across, suddenly and fatally, as one of those benighted, misguided, illogical or indolent; the message is garbled and ineffective, painful to many listeners/readers, and ultimately indicative of inept message-construction.

If you cannot structure your message logically, what makes you presume that we should expect you to have organized the thought behind that message logically?

Thus, if you want your message to be effective, never split an infinitive.

It is a matter of logic and efficiency:
Don’t split an infinitive. Ever.

Some may try to point to historical usage in literature of different periods to bolster their slap-dash use of split infinitives.

However, one must interrogate the three opera that are the best of Classical English prose. The first two—the King James translation of The Bible, and the 1559/1662 Book of Common Prayer—are completely free of split infinitives. The third opus is the works of Shakespeare, in which there are only two split infinitives: that single split infinitive within Shakespeare’s plays, in Coriolanus, appears to be a printer’s mistake (the play first appears in print only some five years after Shakespeare’s death), and the single split infinitive in his poetry was done to meet the specific requirements of rhyme within that one verse. Thus we can say that the Best of English is achieved without ever splitting infinitives!

However, the need to refrain from splitting infinitives is not a mere historical exercise. Neither is it simply a pedantic concern. Indeed, it is less about the infinitive alone than it involves, eviscerates, two parts of speech!

This problematic, grammatical condition is a misuse that diminishes clarity, impedes communication, and makes the issuer of it sound like that one, perpetually inept, boring professor whose class we had to struggle seemingly eternally not to sleep through!

 


 


 

To explore it further [and NOT to further explore it”], let’s take an example of contemporary split infinitives (and include an object of the infinitive in a lighter gray font to help with the exposition):

 

To boldly speak the truth

Now, just what are the problems with this?

 

Splitting the infinitive by cramming the adverb (or worse, an adverbial phrase!) down inside it is the most ineffective position for the adverb! There are three principal reasons as to why this turns an infinitive into an invalid.

1. We use adverbs specifically to add further meaning or greater effect to the verbs, adjectives, other adverbs—or to the entire phrases—that adverbs modify.

This wide usability is one aspect of adverbs that most forget: just because it’s called an ad-verb doesn’t mean you have to shove it down the throat of what you think is the verb. (The term adverb is from the Latin, ad + verbum/verba: applied to the word(s): not necessarily verb!)  It is vital to remember, as well, that adverbs do not automatically modify whatever follows them!

This amateurish, automatic, adverb-in-front-of-everything placement rule appears to have arisen from too many modern English language teachers' lack of a Classical, Humanities, education, and their resulting failure to understand the meaning of the word, adverb, itself!

To use adverbs effectively, it is absolutely, unrelentingly required that one get them in exactly the right position within the phrase! [Note: "To use adverbs effectively", NOT "To effectively use adverbs", NOR "To use effectively adverbs"!]

Hiding the adverb within the infinitive moves it into a dead & done, skip-over position because, whether the writer like it or not, the linguistic impetus on hearing /tu:/ is to move rapidly to the ‘core’ word that this phoneme governs. If this means hurrying past, ignoring the adverb, the mind will do that.

Compare the citation above with

To speak the truth boldly

or even with

Boldly to speak the truth

In contrast to that very first phrase, high above, in which the adverb is killed by its having been used to split the infinitive, you see in these further examples that pulling the adverb out of that mid-thicket of the infinitive allows the adverb to rise to prominence: to have much more effect, to create a phrase with far greater impact.

As this restoration also returns the infinitive to its expected form, that of a single unit, the phrase also flows more smoothly, without interruption. One must remember—always!—that because we learn the infinitive as a unit, the mind wants to hear and read it as a single unit. Any mangling of that expected format spaghettifies your meaning and weakens the effect of your message!


 


 


 

2. The infinitive’s initial particle ‘to’ is part of a homonymous set, with three words pronounced identically: to, too and two.

Complicating this situation is that one of these, ‘to’, is also a homograph: a condition in which a single spelling and pronunciation expresses disparate meanings in differing situations. One of these meanings is when ‘to’ is used as a preposition, as in “She went to the store.”

[Note: A preposition is a word used at the beginning (“pre-positioned”) of a small phrase that establishes the space-, time- or agent-relationship of its noun or pronoun (this, its ‘object’, is always required) to the rest of the larger phrase in which it appears. Thus we have “She went to the store.”, “She went into the store., “She stayed in the store for an hour by her own watch.” [Prepositions are covered in section 10 of the QCEG.]
The particle ‘to’ heading an infinitive cannot, therefore, be called a preposition because neither does it establish a space-, time- or agent-relationship, nor does it ever have a noun or pronoun object!]

The other meaning is when ‘to’ is used as the particle that forms the first subunit within an infinitive. ‘To’ in this position has no meaning of its own: it is not a preposition, but the signal-preface proclaiming that the two-unit phrase it fronts is an infinitive.

BACKGROUND: This form of the (present) infinitive goes back to Old English (before 800 CE), in which the prepositional form ‘tō’ was combined with a variant form of the verbal adjective (the present participle), used as a headless noun-form (as in the phrase, "those singing", where 'people' or such is omitted). This was itself then put into the Dative case. This “inflected infinitive” (also called the “gerundial infinitive” [Harrison and Sharp, Beowulf, note on line I., p. 174]) co-existed with the earlier, Germanic “uninflected infinitive” throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. [vide: Morgan Callaway, Jr., The Infinitive in Anglo-Saxon]
Within that era, the places in which each form was used came to be by-and-large established, with usages that have held consistent across the centuries into Modern English. As in other, modern Germanic languages, there was no actual gerund in Old English: such usage was supplied by either form of the infinitive.

[The inflected infinitive is erroneously called gerund (or gerundive) in some Old English grammars, whose authors appear to labor under the simplistic misconception that a language can have only one infinitive. It is unfortunate that those writers have been deprived of the opportunity to study Classical Greek, which has an infinitive for practically every tense, voice and mode!]

Examples of this differing, ancient usage of the two infinitive forms appear in the following:
(The table uses one of the two or more auxiliary verbs individual Germanic languages have had to use in order to recreate a specifically future tense form, one that they had early lost as a separate, unique entity. One sees here another, possible remnant of the influence exerted by Old Norse on the forms current in Old English, and preserved in later  English, and Icelandic, development.)

Modern English:

He will sing.
(infinitive root)

/hi: wɪl siŋ/

He ought to sing.
(full infinitive)

/hi: ɔ:t tu: siŋ/

Old English:

Hē wille singan.
(uninflected infinitive)
/he: wɪlɛ siŋgan/

Hē āh tō singenne.

(inflected infinitive)
/he: a:χ to: siŋgɛnnɛ/

Gothic:

Is wili siggwan.
/ɪs wɪlɪ siŋgwan/

Is áih siggwan.
/ɪs aιχ siŋgwan/

Old Norse:

Hann vill syngja .
/ha:n wɪl syŋja/

Hann ā at syngja.
/ha:n a: at syŋja/
(syngja originally syngwa[n])

In Other Modern Germanic Languages:

      Icelandic:

Hann mun syngja.

Hann ætti að syngja.

      Swedish:

Han skall sjunga.

Han borde sjunga.

      Danish:

Han vil synge.

Han burde synge.

      German:

Er wird singen.

Er soll singen.

      Dutch:

Hij zal zingen.

Hij moet zingen.

 

Despite the fact that Old English treated both the inflected and uninflected form of the infinitive as single units, modern misunderstanding has led many to think that the initial particle, ‘to’, was, and is still merely a preposition. However, this has not been true for at least some 1300 years.

During the period of Middle English [c. 1150 - 1450], the verbal units within these two forms lost their original final syllable(s) and those portions coalesced to the point of being indistinguishable from the present root—the verb form on which the present tense is based. Thus the uninflected infinitive came to be the modern single-word form, the infinitive root, used with such auxiliaries as will, shall, or must, while the inflected infinitive still appears in all other uses.

But this multiplicity of meanings—both the duplicity of the word ‘to’ as well as its homonymous variants, too and two—creates a highly ambiguous situation. This complexity requires that the listener or reader delay interpretation of any following words until the nature of that /tu:/ be fully deciphered.

The problem with split infinitives is that they delay that interpretation.

This verbal-suspension-of-understanding is learned, expected and parsed without difficulty by the speakers of German and Dutch. But it is unnecessary, labor-intensifying and therefore offensive mental Schwitzarbeit [sweat-work] to any knowledgeable speaker of English.

Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.”

—Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)

An example of this verbal-suspension would be:

“Der Knabe war unglücklich daß er hatte so schnell nach der Rückkehr Briefe über seine Ferienbesuch in Freiburg an die Großeltern schreiben müssen.”

The boy was unhappy that  he had to write his grandparents letters about his holiday visit to Freiburg so quickly after having returned. ”

Just as one would NEVER phrase this translation as “to so quickly after having returned write”, so one must also NEVER emit such a thing as “to quickly  write”!

Consider the pending, suspended decipherment of the phoneme /tu:/, as it is revealed when one cannot trust an author not to split the poor infinitive:

 

To boldly   ?? speak a phrase
‘to’ → split infinitive
Too boldly ??  spoken words
‘too’  an adverb modifying another adverb (boldly)

Two boldly ?? speaking persons

 

 

 

   

‘two’  a numeric adjective modifying a following noun (persons), itself preceded by a verbal phrase: the adverb + present participle (boldly speaking)

In programming terms, the first word, then the second word, must be “pushed onto the stack” and held for subsequent disambiguators. Only after having reached the third word can the “stack be popped” and, at last, the meaning of the entire phrase decoded. (Consider how much worse that delay must be whenever the emitter has actually placed an entire phrase or clause within his painfully swollen infinitive!)

Yet, by not splitting the infinitive the ambiguity is resolved at as early a point as possible, as these whole and hale infinitives demonstrate:

To speak boldly his message and his meaning…

or

To speak his message and his meaning boldly

or (in an even more forcefully stated phrase)

Boldly to speak his message and his meaning …

Yes, adverbs can, and often should (or even must), be placed in the positions in which they modify the entire infinitive phrase—or any other phrase that they do indeed modify!

Placing adverbs appropriately is the mark of the skillful writer, the powerful speaker, distinguishing them markedly from the less evocative, less capable one who does not tailor adverbial position to the needs, the spirit, and the effect of the message. Split infinitives never fail to destroy the effectiveness of that message!

 

 


 


 

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.

 


 


 

It appears that very many writers, TV and radio presenters, and editors have forgotten that one easy way to determine the position in which adverbs should appear when they modify an infinitive (or, indeed, any other word or phrase) is to replace the single-word adverb temporarily with its matching adverbial prepositional phrase.

In regards to the example phrase, one would have, in the case of the split infinitive

To boldly speak  To with boldness speak

These phrases are garbage, on both sides of the arrow.

Placing the prepositional phrase correctly will reveal the logically and grammatically proper, and effective, placement required for that adverb. In this case it is in the position immediately following the infinitive:

To speak with boldness To speak boldly

 

The childish and horribly ineffective, counter-productive way in which programmers, scientists, teachers and professors—and particularly writers and broadcasters—have taken to killing their adverbs by ungrammatically (that is, illogically) throwing them, bound and gagged, between the twin rails of the English infinitive railway has rendered much of modern English painful to peruse, grating upon the ears, and oftentimes truly unparsable, unreadable.

This pernicious failure to teach clarity of expression by imparting the quite logical rules of English grammar is nowadays more common than syphilis.

Unfortunately, this type of adverbocide has also spread from careless writing and informal speech into radio, television and documentary, rendering so much media-programming at many times just as unlistenable, in the same way and degree that so much writing about computer programming is tediously imprecise, inefficient and ineffective. It is surprising to recognize that these poor communicators split infinitives not only with single adverbs, but seemingly take every opportunity to cram a complete adverbial phrase—or even compound or complex phrases—down the throat of the poor, abused infinitive.

To not like only, but like in all like everywhere like used situations speak and like well write … dude!

A split infinitive is illogical. It is an impediment to clear communication. When inflicted by professionals, it is a sign of accidental, or even pompous, illiteracy. When evinced by the untutored or unfamiliar, it most often comes from the bad, incidental influence of those who have been schooled, those who should know better. Like the splinter that slices between toe nail and toe, the splitter of an infinitive is painfully out of place.

 

Every time you split an infinitive, an adverb dies.
And the stench of that corpse then pervades your prose.

 

Don’t split infinitives. Ever!

 

Comments   

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

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