It just will not die. It has been shot down, demolished, exploded and buried at a crossroads with a stake through its heart. It should be as dead as Marley, but it keeps coming back.
It is the baseless prohibition against the split infinitive. Theodore Bernstein said hopefully in Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins (1971) that “within the near future the split-infinitive bugaboo will be finally laid to rest.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes the resistance to the construction as having “established itself in that subculture existing in the popular press and in folk belief.” Garner’s Modern American Usage includes the split infinitive in the entry Superstitions. John Bremner wrote in 1980, “This so-called rule has no foundation in grammar, logic, rhetoric or common sense.” *
Just so. The split infinitive is the thing that many people think about when they think about grammar, even if they are not entirely sure what an infinitive is. “Oh, you’re a copy editor — better watch out and not split any infinitives talking to you, ha-ha.”
In fact, the only reason to avoid splitting infinitives is to escape the uninformed censure of people who think that it is a violation of grammar and usage. Merriam-Webster’s: “The commentators recognize that there is nothing grammatically wrong with the split infinitive, but they are loath to abandon a subject that is so dear to the public at large. Therefore, they tell us to avoid split infinitives except when splitting one improves clarity. Since improved clarity is very often the purpose and result of using a split infinitive, the advice does not amount to much. The upshot is that you can split them when you need to.”
Let me emphasize this Merriam-Webster’s conclusion: “To repeat, the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis.”
I bring this up because Professor Geoffrey Pullum has brought his artillery to bear on a blog, Punctuality Rules, that made some heavy going trying to sort out advice on the split infinitive from Strunk and White — a volume that Professor Pullum and the other Language Log savants particularly despise.**
An examination of E.B. White’s efforts with the split infinitive shows that he is trying to work himself out of the predicament that Merriam-Webster’s describes. He can see perfectly well that splitting infinitives is perfectly natural and appropriate in English, but he is aware of the finger-waggers ready to spring forward. His advice, therefore, is of little use.
I empathize with Professor Pullum’s irritation with people who carry on about Strunk and White, treating it as more a totem than a usage manual. And I have some sympathy for Deb Boyken, the blogger at Punctuality Rules, for having innocently engaged his attention. Her response to his post sounds hurt. At the same time, it’s irritating to see people rushing to her defense with comments calling Geoffrey Pullum a mean man.
Blogging is publication; it’s not circulating the annual Christmas letter among family and friends. It is a public performance, and people who perform in public leave themselves open to evaluation. Heat and kitchens and all that.
Just leave the split infinitive alone and wait for another couple of generations to die.
**I have a sentimental attachment to Strunk and White dating from my first encounter with it as a senior in high school, but I no longer consult it as a usage manual.