|Oxford’s infinitive ruling hardly definitive
August 23, 1998
“Survival of the fittest” entered the language in 1865 courtesy of Herbert Spencer, a social Darwinist who applied Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection to human society. The term is generally held in high odour because it has been used to justify such things as eugenics and corporate selfishness. However, “survival of the fittest” accurately describes how human knowledge progresses.
For example, the geocentric theory of the solar system went out the window as soon as the heliocentric theory was proven. Similarly, archaeology and Darwin’s evolutionary theories destroyed the credibility of the biblical version of how life began.
The arguments in favour of heliocentrism and evolution are absolutely superior because their arguments are supported by tangible, credible evidence. The fact that some people may persist in asserting geocentrism or creationism changes nothing.
Thus, in the world of human knowledge the operating rule is “survival of the fittest argument.” After all, it would be absurd to expect an inferior theory to supplant a stronger one. Well, try telling that to the gurus of grammar at Oxford University Press. According to The New Oxford Dictionary of English, split infinitives are now officially permissible.
Leaving aside the fact that I, as an editor, loathe semantic sloppiness, I am appalled at the feeble argument the editors offered up to justify this abomination. It boils down to the solipsism: “If it feels good, split it.”
At no time do the editors show that split infinitives are an improvement over the traditional proscription, which dates to the end of the 13th century. In fact, they marshall no evidence at all—just feeble rationalizations and assertions.
We’re told that the traditional dislike for split infinitives is a vestige from Latin that should not apply to English. In the Daily Telegraph account, we read: “In Latin, infinitives consist of only one word (e.g., crescere ‘to grow’…), which makes them impossible to split; therefore, so the argument goes, they should not be split in English either.”
This may be true, but so what? Should English infinitives be split just because they can be? The editors seem to make an appeal to orthography to rationalize a change in grammar. I suggest they make use of their own book to look up non sequitur.
The editors compound their problem by citing with approval Capt. James T. Kirk’s immortal words from Star Trek. “‘To go boldly where no man has gone before,’ where the infinitive is not split, conveys a different emphasis or sounds awkward.” Wrong on both counts.
Let’s deal with awkwardness first. If “to go boldly” is awkward then so are: “to run fast,” “to eat quietly,” “to behave badly,” etc. Since these phrases are not awkward, neither is “to go boldly,” and so the editors’ argument collapses.
As for emphasis, a difference does not exist. In both “to boldly go” and “to go boldly” the adverb “boldly” modifies the infinitive “to go.” One might surmise that the editors have grown so indulgent of sloppy English that they can’t stand the sound of correct English.
As inept as these arguments are, a letter writer to the Globe and Mail (Aug. 19) made an even worse one. In attempting to prove unique emphasis, he asserted that the phrase “failing to completely recognize” differed from “completely failing to recognize.” He’s right, but only because he made a syntactic blunder. In the first case, “completely” modifies “recognize” and in the second, it modifies “failure.” If he had bothered to consider the option “failing to recognize completely,” he would have seen that split infinitives cannot be justified on the grounds of emphasis.
In the end, the editors cannot give one convincing defence for split infinitives, and certainly no reason to scorn Latin habits, which, old though they may be, are esthetically and semantically superior.
Comparisons aside, split infinitives create their own problems. First, they bury adverbs, thus sucking the life out of them. In an infinitive construction, adverbial modifiers come at the end, e.g.: to think on one’s feet (adverbial phrase); to finish quickly (adverb). In these phrases, the important thing is not what is being done but how it’s being done; consequently, the adverb is at the end.
Let’s take Kirk’s famous mission statement about the starship Enterprise: “Its five-year mission… to boldly go where no man has gone before.” In “to boldly go,” the verb is in final position, which gives the illusion that the thoroughly prosaic act of going is most important. There is no good reason not to write “to go boldly where no man has gone before.”
Second, split infinitives create “structural ambiguity,” to borrow a term from Noam Chomsky. In the irritating (and sadly ubiquitous) “to better understand” the mind has to sort out whether “to better” is an adverb or an infinitive construction in its own right. Why should the mind have to sort out an unnecessary semantic confusion? I suspect this is why split infinitives set peoples’ teeth on edge—they are inherently imprecise. Yet, the Oxford editors declare them to be “normal and useful.”
Since there is no convincing argument for split infinitives, the editors are obliged to acknowledge that their judgment is unfit, and that defending accuracy is more important than caving in to popular imprecision. It will take courage. They may have to go boldly where no editors have gone before.
\Sympathy (sym + pathos—“with suffering” or “with feeling”) isn’t good enough anymore, as if maintaining a distance from the person implied less than true support. Thus “empathy” has degenerated into another touchy-feely weed cluttering our English lexical garden.