United country–split infinitives?
Picking up on Father Imbelli’s preceding post re the Obama-Roberts “do-over,” neuro-psycho-linguist Steven Pinker has an op-ed in today’s NYT, “Oaf of Office” (bad title) which posits that the original problem stemmed from Chief Justice Roberts’ grammatical pedantry. (Some might trace that to his “strict interpretation” judicial philosophy–others to an overly-scrupulous Catholic education?) In fact, Roberts has been known to “correct” direct quotations for grammar–he took the “ain’t” out of Dylan’s line “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
But Pinker’s larger target is the “fetishizing” of the proscription against split infinitives:
Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual. Nonetheless, they refuse to go away, perpetuated by the Gotcha! Gang and meekly obeyed by insecure writers.
Among these fetishes is the prohibition against “split verbs,” in which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like “to,” or an auxiliary like “will,” and the main verb of the sentence. According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made a grammatical error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before”; it should have been “to go boldly.” Likewise, Dolly Parton should not have declared that “I will always love you” but “I always will love you” or “I will love you always.”
Any speaker who has not been brainwashed by the split-verb myth can sense that these corrections go against the rhythm and logic of English phrasing. The myth originated centuries ago in a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split an infinitive because it consists of a single word, like dicere, “to say.” But in English, infinitives like “to go” and future-tense forms like “will go” are two words, not one, and there is not the slightest reason to interdict adverbs from the position between them.
Though the ungrammaticality of split verbs is an urban legend, it found its way into The Texas Law Review Manual on Style, which is the arbiter of usage for many law review journals. James Lindgren, a critic of the manual, has found that many lawyers have “internalized the bogus rule so that they actually believe that a split verb should be avoided,” adding, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers has succeeded so well that many can no longer distinguish alien speech from native speech.”
I’ll readily admit to grammatical insecurity, especially now that I rarely have the blessed backstop of a rimful of newsroom copy editors. But I have to agree with Pinker on this one. I think even Safire may have caved here, though I’m not sure. Safire does acknowledge a development of doctrine where language is concerned. I’m just glad that Obama was successfully re-consecrated with the correct ritual formula so that the sedevacantists of our civil religion will have one less conspiracy to flog…