Out with whom, in with the split infinitive

One of our blog authors recently tackled the “whom issue”, and it made me wonder if this word is really dying out. Our readers will also remember several posts featuring the split infinitive, the pedants’ pet peeve.

I have decided to explore the actual usage of whom and the split infinitive (separated by one adverb only) in British and American English from the first half of the twentieth century onwards. I investigated the changes in British English for the period 1931- 2006 (corpora used in the analysis: BLOB-1931, LOB, FLOB, BE06) and in American English for the period 1960s-2006 (corpora used in the analysis: Brown, Frown, AE06).

Here are the results (the data for American English in 1931 are not available):



Whom has indeed been losing popularity in British English since the 1930s, and the decrease in use is getting sharper. Things are not as straightforward in American English, where it seems that whom witnessed a revival in the beginning of the 1990s, which was again followed by a decrease in use.

Things are, on the other hand, rather unambiguous when it comes to the split infinitive. This grammatical construction is on the rise. The increase in  use was not as dramatic in British English in the period between the 1930s and the 1960s, but it has rocketed since then. A similar trend can be identified in American English: a high increase between the 1960s and the 1990s, with a continuing rising trend.

What do you think, which other constructions and/or words are on the rise, and which ones are on their way to extinction?

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5 Responses to Out with whom, in with the split infinitive

  1. Joy Burrough-Boenisch says:

    Fascinating! Thank you! Have you been able to find a correlation between the rising popularity and subsequent cult status of the American TV series Star Trek (first shown in the US in the late 1960s) and the occurrence of the split infinitive in US and UK corpora? The catch phrase was “to boldly go where no man has been before” (see http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/385400.html). By 1979 it was so well known in the UK that in his comic sci-fi cult novel “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (subsequently made into a great BBC Radio series and a then into a film) Douglas Adams wrote about adventurers daring “to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before”.

    • Morana Lukač says:

      Thank you, Joy, for these interesting anecdotes! Comparing developments in language use with “outside” factors (popularity in the media, publications of new dictionaries and usage guides) will definitely be one of the foci within our project.
      It seems that several parallel events contributed to the changing status of the split infinitive – surely screenwriters, authors, the media in general, and descriptive dictionaries had a lot to do with it. In 1998, for example, the split infinitive was featured in headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, when the New Oxford Dictionary of English “backed the split infinitive”. Nevertheless, this construction continues to be among the pedants’ top peeves.

  2. The trend of “whom” in American English is much clearer in Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English and in his interface for the American Google Books corpus. Both show a fairly smooth and steady decline over the last two hundred years.

  3. Morana Lukač says:

    Thank you for the input. For our research-minded readers, Martin Hilpert’s website provides invaluable information on producing state-of-the-art motion charts from diachronic corpus data http://members.unine.ch/martin.hilpert/motion.html

  4. This week, in the Leiden MA course Prescription and Prescritptivism, we are reading the introduction to Mittins et al. (1970), Attitudes to English Usage. There we can read that of the five additional items in the survey Mittins et al. carried out, the usage “Who was he looking for”, which has who (for whom) as the focus for comment, “was by any standard the most acceptable” (p. 2). To my mind, this suggests that whom was already on the way out in BrE by the late 1960s when the attitudes surveys were carried out. As for the split infinitive, in the conclusion to the book, the authors refer to “the myth that condemns the ‘split infinitive'”: so this, too, was already recognised at the time.

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