Split Infinitives

[I am no linguist, as I am no literary critic; and as with my literary criticism, the views expressed herein are entirely derived from my idle and uneducated speculation on the subject.]

People who’ve been reading this blog for far too long may remember this post I wrote once about David Foster Wallace’s worthless opinions on the English language (in lieu, that is, of my opinions on his worthless novels).

What’s curious, though, is that not merely is DFW’s second contention incorrect, as I argue, but that his first one is as well. It is myth, I discover now, that the injunction against splitting infinitives is modelled on Latin – as it seems to be an urban myth that any English grammatical rules are “modelled” on Latin – there is not the slightest shred of evidence for any of it.

There was a few other speculative ideas going around in my head as I was thinking this. For a start, if a Latin-based grammatical rule did exist, which was contrary to English usage, propagated around say the 18th century, then you should be able to go back to Shakespeare and Chaucer, for instance, and see if they “obey” this rule. It turns out quite curiously that they do – at least, Shakespeare and Chaucer do; though in fact, using splitting infinitives seems to have been a matter of personal predilection throughout the ages.

But another question started to interest me more than this, inspired by a discussion in The Guardian where some commenter claimed English was unique as a language (I’m not sure how unique) in that it used two words to express an infinitive. This seemed to me a highly curious state of affairs: languages tend to hold certain patterns in common, particularly with other languages with which they are co-descendents. How did this state of affairs come about?

Well, according to Wikipedia (which has a seemingly quite highly regarded article on the subject of split infinitives), our infinitive isn’t a true infinitive at all, but a gerund.

OK, but what is a gerund? Well, Obooki has had a good classical education and he knows what a gerund is – though perhaps he’d never considered he’d ever been using them in English. But it seems we’re using them all the time and not even noticing. – A gerund is a verbal noun, meaning the act of doing whatever it is the verb means. For instance, in English, the gerund of the verb “kill” is “killing” – but this is “killing” as a noun, and not as a present participle. In the title of John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”, for instance, we are using “killing” as a gerund. – You can form a gerund in this way out of any English verb.

But how do you get from a gerund to an infinitive? – Well, quite simply, I suspect; since in English you can often substitute gerunds for infinitives. For instance, to take another title, this time from a novel:

Eating People is Wrong

where “eating” is a gerund, can as easily be expressed in English as

To Eat People is Wrong

although we’d be inclined to impersonalise such a sentence into

It’s Wrong to Eat People

But quite how the marker “to” has got in there I can’t make out. Wikipedia claims it is a dative, and of course “to” is the usual way we construct datives in English: “The farmer is going to his fields”.

I have to imagine a construction something like, for instance:

I am going to the playing of football

where, over time, bits drop out and give us

I am going to play football

I clearly need to read more Old English.

There’s a lot of stuff on Language Log about split infinitives, all referenced here.


Another example from Spanish, quoted by Emma on her website, is the sentence

No se puede vivir sin amar

using an infinitive “amar”, which in English we’d translate

It’s not possible to live without loving

because we cannot use “without” with an infinitive in English, we have to substitute in a gerund (and thus cannot play the neat trick of the two infinitives which appears in Spanish).

[I see I’ve not said anything at all in this post about split infinitives].

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2 thoughts on “Split Infinitives

  1. Indeed, it’s impossible to live and not to love. (Perhaps a preposition can’t take an “infinitive” in English, because an “infinitive” already has a preposition in it, so we fall back on the gerund).

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