The “split infinitive syndrome”

The quotation in this title is from an article by David Crystal on the split infinitive which appeared in English Today in 1985. It was taken from a book by Robert Burchfield, The English Language, which had come out that same year.

Crystal’s article opens with a quotation from an unnamed correspondent who wrote that “there is nothing more depressing than to witness the current degradation of the English language, most noticeable in the trend to use split infinitives”, and Crystal questions the currency as well as the trend of the phenomenon commented on.

The construction, he notes, has been in the language at least since Wycliffe – a point already made fifteen years earlier by Mittins et al. in their Attitudes to English Usage (1970), which has been the source the usage polls presented in this blog. But the point of Crystal’s article is that, as he continues, “people who harangue the press about split infinitives are doing the language no service. They are, rather, promoting a spirit of uncertainty which will ultimately do far more harm”. And he advises: “if you have an obsession, keep it to yourself”.

But writing to the press about the split infinitive is what people have continued to do, to much the same purpose. My most recent example is from January 2010, from the online edition of the New York Times: “The split infinitive used in the penultimate paragraph by the editorial board of the New York Times is so disappointing I could barely finish reading this piece” (29 January 2010).

I wonder how much an impediment the split infinitive really was to the complaining author’s ability to read on, but perhaps it was, and the fact that he or she decided to complain about it in very the paper in which the offending instance occurred suggests the same concern with linguistic standards commented on by Crystal. In the wider perspective of complaining about usage problems in the press not much seems to have changed over the past twenty years. More than anything else, especially since the construction has gained such widespread currency in the meantime, it seems that the split infinitive has taken on an iconic function in such concerns.

For those interested, David Crystal is coming to Leiden this week: on Thursday 9 February, he will speak on “Pragmatics: the final frontier”. Tickets, as far as I know, are still available – for free – from the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics. We are looking forward to seeing you there.

A Case of the Split Infinitives, David Crystal (1985).
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