Splitting only

What do try and, only, split infinitives and dangling participles have in common? This is a question we asked a few weeks ago, and I promised to let you know as soon as we found out. Here, then, is a partial answer to what I found upon analysing the results of the attitudes survey I held in 2012. The data I analysed are the results to the survey question on the acceptability of only only (as in the Mittins sentence He only had one chapter to finish).

This is what one informant told us:

He only had to finish one chapter would be better and would eliminate the split infinitive but I find your sentence acceptable

Split infinitive??? And it wasn’t the only one:

Although there is a split infinitive I might use this sentence perhaps in conversation about someone and a book he was reading, I would not use it in a written piece as grammar is incorrect

Perhaps we may find the explanation in this informant’s reply:

I would say this.I suppose it may be considered by some to be technically incorrect to split the subject and verb with an adverb (as in French and German), but this is quite common in English and I like the nuancing flexibility of English being able to move the abverb; in French you can achieve this by moving the adverb to infront of the subjectandverb: seulement il avait ……

Yes, only does indeed split the subject and the verb in a way that many people still find unacceptable today (20 of 129 native speaker informants who filled in the survey). And I suppose the split infinitives is such an iconic usage problem, that the notion of splitting is enough to suggest the split infinitive to some people. So here is one link between the four usage problems Carmen Ebner and I are writing a paper about, and who knows, there may be other equally unexpected ones to follow. We’ll let you know.

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