Saturday, January 19, 2008

Saturday Usage Tip #2

Since it was brought up in last week's comments, this week we address the age-old question: to split or not to split? The answer, as it turns out, is not a simple "No."

split infinitives.

A. Generally. An infinitive is the tenseless form of a verb preceded by to, such as to dismiss or to modify. Splitting the infinitive is placing one or more words between to and the verb, such as to summarily dismiss or to unwisely modify. Although few armchair grammarians seem to know it, some split infinitives are regarded as perfectly proper.

B. Splits to be avoided. If a split is easily fixed by putting the adverb at the end of the phrase and the meaning remains the same, then avoiding the split is the best course:
Split: "It is not necessary to here enlarge upon those points."
Unsplit: "It is not necessary to enlarge upon those points here."
Such capriciously split infinitives only jar the reader.

Wide splits are generally to be avoided, specially with piled-on adverbs--e.g.: "We encourage both spouses to utilize the best efforts to understandingly, sympathetically, and professionally try to work out a compromise." (A possible revision: We encourage both spouses to try to work out a compromise understandingly, sympathetically, and professionally.)

With correlative conjunctions, a split infinitive simply displays carelessness--e.g.: "There are already enough problems with trying to get all parents to either make sure their children are in car seats or in seat belts." (A possible revision: There are already enough problems with trying to get all parents to make sure their children are protected by either car seats or seat belts.)

C. Justified splits. A number of infinitives are best split. Perhaps the most famous is from the 1960s television series Star Trek, in which the opening voice-over included this phrase: to boldly go where no man has gone before. The phrase sounds inevitable partly because it is so familiar, but also because the adverb most naturally bears the emphasis, not the word go.

And that example is not a rarity. Consider: She expects to more than double her profits next year. We cannot merely move the adverbial phrase in that sentence--to "fix" the split, we would have to eliminate the infinitive, as by writing She expects that her profits will more than double next year, thereby giving the sentence a different nuance. (The woman seems less responsible for the increase.)

Distinguishing examples [where unsplitting the infinitive would either create an awkwardness or change the sentence] from those under (B) may not be easy for all readers. Those who find it difficult might advantageously avoid all splits.

D. Awkwardness caused by avoiding splits. Occassionally, sticking to the old "rule" about split infinitives leads to gross phrasing--e.g.:
  • "Linda Dishman siad Monday that Mahony was attempting unfairly to deflect attention away from what she said was illegal demolition of a city-protected landmark." (What was unfair: the attempting or the deflecting? Read either was unfairly attempting to deflect or was attempting to unfairly deflect.)
  • "Democrats fought for an increase in the minimum wage and hope quickly to pass [read hope to quickly pass] an expansion of the family leave act."

E. Ambiguities. When the first of several infinitives is split and the initial to is the only one, an ambiguity results--e.g.: "The legislation would make it a federal crime to physically block access to clinics, damage their property or injure or intimidate patients and staff." There's a problem in interpretation: does physically modify the verbs damage, injure, and intimidate, as well as block? One hopes that the problem is merely with the journalist's paraphrase and not with the legislation itself.

Garner's Modern American Usage, 2003, pp. 742-744. Quotations and citations omitted.

No comments: