To Split Or Not To Split
April 16, 2014
The split infinitive is no longer taboo. Or, at least that’s the way it seems. Apparently we weren’t just talking about space with the proclamation that we have “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” We meant grammar too. Grammar rules exist in order to lend logical cogency to our sentences. This fact is readily forgotten, however, when it comes to split infinitives. Never mind the fact that there is a distinct difference between saying “I really want to know” and saying “I want to really know.” The emphasis in the first statement is on the word “want,” while in the second, the emphasis is on the word “know.” The two expressions have entirely different meanings. The problem arises when we use the two phrases interchangeably, an extraordinarily common phenomenon. But, we don’t emphasize know, when we mean to emphasize want; instead, we choose the proper meaning and the improper formulation. So, if the meaning is the same, then what’s the big deal? Well, when one attempts to correct the statement “I want to really know,” he will change it to “I really want to know,” which creates an entirely different meaning. The result is unnecessary confusion. Though the English language is an ever changing and growing animal, it has rules so that it does not degenerate into complete chaos. Form matters because it ensures universal understanding. My roommate probably knows what I mean by “I want to really know,” and so she wouldn’t take a meaning from the statement that was not intended. The same sentence written by an American to a man who is not a native English speaker creates problems. If we know what we want to say, then we should, theoretically, have no problem actually saying it, and saying it well. The clearer the thought, the clearer the words.
A split infinitive is the equivalent of tossing out the phrase, “You know what I mean,” after each point made in an argument, not because the split itself has no meaning, but because the meaning it does have is far too often ignored or confused. This ambiguity should not exist. An infinitive is a simple concept: it is the verb which has no tense. An infinitive is a simple action: to throw, to jump, to run, to write, et cetera. So, what splits an infinitive? An adverb – a word whose purpose is emphasis. When an adverb is stuck in the middle of an action, things get weird. If you misplace your emphasis, then you lose your meaning. “To boldly go…” is a prime example. The action is no longer pride of place; rather, it’s the manner that matters. The phrase almost suggests that it doesn’t matter what is done, so long as it is done boldly. You’re so caught up in the “boldly” part, that you miss the go. And, isn’t it the go which actually matters?
If we choose to dismiss the ordering of words as unimportant to the idea being conveyed, then what we have done is dismissed the understanding and thought process of the writer. We cannot know the thoughts of another person as they exist newly born in the mind, so the only means we have of sharing our thoughts is through language. By using unclear language, such as split infinitives, we allow another person the freedom to interpret our thoughts, giving them ample opportunity to get it wrong. This effect, however, is the least of our worries. A lack of clarity in language actually denotes a lack of clear thought. If we do not have clear thought, then we can no longer uphold principles or argue for truth. This has particular resonance for Americans. We are a nation of principles, but if we can’t articulate our principles clearly and thoughtfully, then the foundation of our nation may be lost. Language allows us to make the abstract nearly tangible. When our language is no longer substantive or formulaic, then that which is built on its foundation collapses.
Formula, however, does not exclude growth. English is a mish-mash of countless other languages. We’ve got Latin; we’ve got Greek, some Romance languages, a little dash of everything everywhere. English is a difficult language to master because it allows for the most creative thought, and as such has a whole slew of exceptions. “I before e except after c,” is repeated in elementary schools across the country, and is a fundamental spelling rule in the English language. Yet, this rule is broken in the spelling of “neighbor” and “weigh.” Many conclude that if a spelling rule may be broken, then all rules may be broken – including the command that infinitives are not to be split. But, a distinction must be made. A split infinitive alters the meaning of a sentence and the meaning of a thought; whereas spelling affects pronunciation and written communication. Though “neighbor” and “weigh” break from the traditional rule, there is no confusion about how they ought to be spelled or pronounced because their form is standardized. There is, however, confusion about the meaning of a sentence which contains a split infinitive because a split represents a departure from the standard.
Maybe you’re thinking that the only way to express the sentiment “I want to really know” is by splitting the infinitive, but, that statement isn’t as clear or as precise as it could or should be. One is equally able to say “I want to know it really well,” which has the benefit of more specifically and more clearly capturing the intended meaning. Split infinitives are a symptom of an insidious disease – imprecise thought and imprecise reason. We rely on comfort and apparent ease in order to make our larger point. But, language is reasonable. It is not a construct of comfort. Sentences are assembled in such a way as to help articulate the thought process of the person who is writing or speaking. So, when we dismiss the structure, we also dismiss some of the thought. The alternative is to argue that we don’t and shouldn’t care what’s coming out of our mouths, which, though it may be true, paints a dismal picture of our intellectual fortitude. If we can’t be bothered with what we say, then how invested are we in our thoughts? It’s easy to say things. We talk a mile a minute, and most of it is rubbish. It is much harder to believe in every word that is written, every word that is said, and it is even more difficult to defend the necessity of each one. The very idea seems tedious and repulsive. Thoughts float through our heads like “Man, I so don’t want to deal with that.” And, it’s true. We really don’t want to manage our language. But, in refusing to consider our language, we refuse to think. We decline to use our brains, and instead, we do what’s easy. We feel instead of think our way through life. Professors used to admonish students for saying “I believe…”; now they correct students for saying “I feel…” Our addiction to the split infinitive is simply another reflection of our abandonment of thought in favor of feeling and sensual gratification. What a sad way to express ourselves.