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Raymond Chandler and the split infinitive

Raymond Chandler to his editor, 1948:

Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois, which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive.

This characteristically muscular burst of invective, which has more about it of the bar-room than the vernacular alone, aptly demonstrates what it attempts to describe. In the process, Chandler attacks one of the most pernicious, enduring and false assumptions about English grammar: that we have an obligation to never split infinitives.

The idea that it is wrong to divorce the infinitive form of a verb from the ‘to’ which signals it derives from the misguided proselytising of late Nineteenth Century grammarians. The venerable and unerring Language Log has repeatedly debunked this particular linguistic myth:

“The misnamed ‘split infinitive’ construction, where a modifier is placed immediately before the verb of an infinitival complement, has never been ungrammatical at any stage in the history of English, and no confident writer of English prose has any problems with it at all.”

The truth is that “English doesn’t have an infinitive form of the verb in the way a language like French does. French succéder is a single word, but English to succeed is not; it’s two words, one a subordinator (to) and the other a verb (the plain form of the lexeme succeed) which is the head of a verb phrase.”

If people increasingly disregard this so-called ‘rule’, it is in any case indicative of a very natural and healthy tendency in languages, which is for meanings and usages to change and adapt with time.

The oft-out-trotted argument that shifts of usage involve a loss of precision doesn’t hold water: Chinese has neither a nominative nor an accusative and doesn’t seem to suffer for it. The fact is that language change involves two, opposed tendencies. The first is a continual movement towards reducing useless information. In any language there is a huge amount of ‘noise in the system’, of redundancy and unnecessary circumlocution. One function of informal, verbal communication is to sidestep this redundancy, either by saying less, or by depending more on context or shared experience: ‘pass me that thing please’, as opposed to, ‘would you mind passing me that object on the table the name of which I have temporarily forgotten’.

The second tendency, by contrast, is to increase complexity unnecessarily (from a semantic perspective, at least). In spoken Spanish, for example, a common error is to use the verb subir, to go up, with the preposition arriba, up: sube para arriba – go up, upwards. In English, one example of this tendency is the way in which people often seem unable to use ‘whether’ without adding ‘or not’, despite the fact that ‘whether’ very usefully integrates the possibility of ‘or not’. ‘I don’t know whether he will come’ means he either will or will not come; the ‘or not’ in ‘I don’t know whether or not he will come’ is totally redundant.

Unfortunately, many people cling to out-dated and baseless notions of grammatical correctness. So pervasive is this idea, indeed, that more often than not we at QuickSilver find ourselves re-combining infinitives, for the simple reason that to many people split infinitives remain anathema.

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