Blind Item, English Grammar and Usage, Federal Judges, Harvard Law Review, Reader Polls, Richard Posner

Grammer Pole of the Weak: Split Infinitives

In an event I did a few years ago at the University of Chicago with Judge Richard Posner (check out the podcast here), Judge Posner tossed out a delicious little blind item. He mentioned a federal judge in Chicago who would fire law clerks for what she viewed as a very grave offense: splitting infinitives in written work product.

But is splitting infinitives really such a crime?

There is a split of authority on the splitting of infinitives. Those who kick it old-school — e.g., certain federal judges and certain law review editors — frown upon split infinitives. Here’s what Professor Nate Oman wrote at Concurring Opinions about his service on the Harvard Law Review:

Prior to my trial by editorial fire, I was vaguely aware that there were infinitives and that they were not to be split. I can’t say, however, that I worried all that much about it. Indeed, I am not sure that I could actually identify an infinitive if called upon to do so. All that changed once I passed the doors of Gannett House.

Merciless senior editors drilled into me the absolute necessity to find and to destroy all split infinitives. One is not to write “I came to clearly say”; rather, one must write “I came to say clearly.” Failure to catch such an error in a professor’s manuscript would result in a note placed in your file by a senior editor, which would then be read in a year’s time at the elections where you made your bid for fame, glory, and absolute power.

Professor Oman dissented from this ruling against split infinitives:

[T]he split infinitive rule is stupid. It sounds stilted to me to say, “Justice O’Connor failed to adopt clearly a rule” rather than “Justice O’Connor failed to clearly adopt a rule.” In short, I like split infinitives. I think that the English language would be much happier were we to drop the whole insistence on keeping the infinitive unsplit. The problem is that I no longer have the split-infinitive innocence that once I had….

I want it to be the way it was before, when I just thought that it was better to say, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” More than that, however, I want to finally, definitively, totally, absolutely, truly, and gleefully repeal the split infinitive rule.

See also this PrawfsBlawg post by Professor Eric E. Johnson (arguing that “[s]plitting infinitives often conveys more precise meaning”), as well as the comments to this Volokh Conspiracy post by Professor Orin Kerr (debating the rule, with most commenters coming down against the rule).

What do the authorities — well, not that Professors Oman and Johnson aren’t authorities, but you know what I mean — have to say about this issue? Over at Concurring Opinions, appellate lawyer Ray Ward posted this helpful comment:

Splitting infinitives isn’t new. In Fowler’s first “Dictionary of Modern English Usage” (1926), Fowler approves of splitting when necessary to avoid either ambiguity or “patent artificiality”:

“We admit that separation of to from its infinitive … is not in itself desirable, and we shall not gratuitously say either ‘to mortally wound’ or ‘to mortally be wounded’ … We maintain, however, that a real split infinitive, though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, and to patent artificiality…”

H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 560 (1926) [link to a later edition]. There’s also that Bryan Garner fellow, who says, “Although few armchair grammarians [or HLR editors?] seem to know it, some split infinitives are regarded as perfectly proper.” Garner’s Modern American Usage 743 (2003) [link to a later edition].

Fowler and Garner would say: try to avoid splitting an infinitive, but don’t do so at the expense of writing something horrid.

This happens to be my view as well. It’s wise to avoid splitting infinitives unnecessarily, since some people do believe that split infinitives are improper — and you don’t want these people to fire you from a clerkship, or vote against you at a law review election.

But sometimes, for the sake of clarity, splitting infinitives is unavoidable — in which case, split away. And sometimes you might want to do so for reasons of emphasis, as noted by Strunk and White (explaining that the split-infinitive construction can be used to place stress on the adverb — e.g., “to diligently inquire” versus “to inquire diligently”).

Readers, what do you think? Please take our poll and argue it out in the comments. If you’d like to learn more about the issue before weighing in, you can check out this Grammar Girl post, which explains the origins of the rule (it has to do with the inability to split infinitives in Latin), or read some of the other blog posts collected below.

P.S. By the way, here are the results for last week’s poll: almost 60 percent of ATL readers oppose beginning a post-colon independent clause with a capital letter.

P.P.S. The Amazon links in this post are affiliate links — i.e., we will make (a minuscule amount of) money from any purchases you make through these links.

Is it acceptable to split infinitives?

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Podcast: Richard Posner and David Lat on “Judges as Public Figures” [The University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog]
How the Harvard Law Review Scarred me for Life [Concurring Opinions]
Behold My Split Infinitives, My Dangling Prepositions, and My Singular “They” [PrawfsBlawg]
Name the Justice [Volokh Conspiracy]
Split Infinitives [Grammar Girl]

Earlier: Prior Grammer Poles of the Weak

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