To Be or To Not Be? …What a Graceless Question

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I've split the infinitive!

There are two main schools of thought among language scholars: descriptivism and prescriptivism. Descriptivists believe that language is a living, changing entity, and that scholarship should simply describe how language is currently used, not legislate how it should be used. According to descriptivists, a dictionary should reflect the actual contemporary state of the language and how it is changing (e.g. adding LOL and woke to the lexicon). Prescriptivism, on the other hand, is the belief that there are correct and incorrect ways to use language and that language scholarship should explain rules to be followed about what is correct and not correct (dictionary.cambridge.org). I am clearly of the latter group. While I realize the futility of trying to freeze the English language in the form I read in classic literature and learned to love growing up, I am nostalgic for the order, clarity, and elegance of bygone syntax that adhered to established rules of grammar. I often feel like a female version of Don Quixote, tilting at windmills of a language that is changing too fast—not only according to convenience but also through ignorance and even laziness—and devolving into an incoherent mishmash. In particular, I feel that these rules were established for a reason—that they clarify meaning and add elegance to our expression.

One of the (many) lost causes for language lovers is the split infinitive. To define this rampant error, first we need to explain that the infinitive of a verb is simply its base form, which comes in the form “to walk,” “to go,” or “to be.” The “to” and the root verb function together as a unit. In practice, the infinitive is often used as the object of another verb—as in, “I love to walk in the mountains” or “We plan to swim across the lake.” The split infinitive error occurs when another word, usually an adverb, is inserted between the “to” and the infinitive verb—for example, “I decided to not walk in the mountains today,” or “The teacher told us to diligently read the assignment.” The emphasis on negating the idea is better accomplished with “I decided not to walk in the mountains today,” and I sincerely hope every good teacher would tell us “to read the assignment diligently,” which emphasizes the requested diligence. The more common conjugated form of the verb, of course, avoids this problem altogether by losing the “to”—in, for example, “I walked in the mountains yesterday,” or “I will swim laps tomorrow.” 

I am in good company in my preference for preserving the infinitive unit undivided. Hamlet’s tragic reflection, “to be or not to be—that is the question” is memorable because of its beauty and grace as well as its tragic circumstance. Shakespeare—along with other poets and eloquent authors—often uses the infinitive form of the verb, and rarely if ever splits it in my reading experience. “To die, to sleep—to sleep, perchance to dream,” Hamlet continues in his celebrated soliloquy. How ugly would “to perchance dream” sound? Ulysses proclaims, at the end of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s immortal eponymous poem: 

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will     

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. 

The error seems especially likely to occur when the infinitive follows a verb that is typically used with “to” itself, such as “want to,” “hope to” or “decide to.” “I hope to find the perfect dress for the wedding” or “I decided to leave the party early” are A-okay. But when a “not” is added, it is tempting to think that the “to” should stick with the active verb (hope or decided), rather than where it belongs, with the infinitive that follows. “I hope to not spend too much on clothes” and “I decided to not go to the party after all” are just plain ugly; I hope not to spend too much and I decided not to go are preferable. 

I encounter this ever-encroaching infraction everywhere in the media these days, and it grates on me each time. “Most presidents have gone out of their way to not weigh in on criminal investigations” I heard on NPR 8/1/18. Wouldn’t “most presidents have gone out of their way not to weigh in” be more eloquent? “…it would be foolish to not think that it would have a lasting impact on any person’s career” (Daily Progress 8/8/18). Clearer to say “It would be foolish not to think that….” The Daily Progress’s 8/29 report that “Woodard called the review board’s decision to not recommend the project to City Council ‘the last straw” would be less awkward as “the board’s decision not to recommend the project….” It is difficult for me not to scream when I read these clumsy statements! I recently received an email from a major political leader that declared: “I need you to not burn out …. I need you to not tune out the news.” Spare me, please!! I will be glad not to burn out and not to tune out the news, but only if you had asked me grammatically. Clearly, someone has decided that sticking that ‘not’ between the two parts of the infinitive is actually preferable to the correct form, and sadly, it is becoming the norm. Surely, Shakespeare and Tennyson are rolling over in their graves—but descriptivists no doubt view this as is a dead issue.

But what difference does it really make? Is it simply conditioning that makes “I decided not to leave the party early” easy on our ears, and makes “I decided to not leave the party early” grate like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard? Grammar Girl boldly declares that “You Can Split Infinitives” and offers the sensible advice to “be guided by the sound and flow of your sentence”  (www.quickanddirtytips.com). “I plan to actively pursue a career in film” is almost a cliché, but I would prefer actively to pursue mine. Doesn’t “This explanation allows us to understand the issue better” convey the intended meaning more effectively than the more common “This explanation allows us to better understand the issue”? To use a more famous example, Star Trek describes the mission of Starship Enterprise as “….to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Am I committing scifi sacrilege when I suggest that a more elegant way to express this thought would be “to go boldly where no man has gone before”? The real strength of this motto is the consonance of the repeated long o sound. In general, these are minor exceptions to an effective grammatical rule. Perhaps it only matters if you care about the grace and elegance of your expression.

The Oxford Dictionary maintains that the rule against split infinitives is old fashioned and rigid. They point out that moving the offending adverb can change the emphasis of what’s being said. The sentence “You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’] doesn’t have quite the same meaning as “You have to really watch him” [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’]. Descriptivists would surely agree, since the unified infinitive is more the exception than the rule these days. Of course we need to be flexible in this, as in all things; there are certainly occasions when splitting the infinitive is more convenient, or changes the meaning or emphasis—in which case, writers may be forgiven for breaking the rule. However, even these loosey goosey descriptivists admit that avoiding split infinitives is the more prudent course. “Nevertheless, some people [like yours truly] do object very strongly to them,” the Oxford entry continues. “As a result, it’s safest to avoid split infinitives in formal writing, unless the alternative wording seems very clumsy or would alter the meaning of your sentence” (en.oxfordictionaries.com). In other words, you may make exceptions when necessary, but should try to avoid the error whenever possible. For the sake of good writing, I hope you’ll choose not to make this error! 

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