To boldly split what no man has split before: Of split infinitives and other usage problems

Captain James T. Kirk, starship captain, adventurer and peacekeeper in outer space, is not only famous for his adventures on the USS Enterprise, but also for providing the frequently quoted opening sequence of the 1960s TV series Star Trek, which Trekkies know by heart and prescriptivists condemn.

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. 

You may ask yourself why prescriptivists wince when hearing this phrase. The answer is simple: the split infinitive to boldly go.

Star Trek boldly goes

Split infinitives and the discussion about their acceptability are nothing new. Chapters have been filled, heated debates have been held, articles have been written. At the end of the day, prescriptivists keep on wincing when hearing split infinitives and the rest happily continues splitting them. The debate on split infinitives is just a snippet of the ever-ongoing prescriptivism versus descriptivism debate. Usually there are no problems in deciding what to use when and how. Borderline cases, however, which reflect disputed usage, keep the debate alive and well.

Although Captain Kirk and his crew were the first to boldly go and explore the depths of the universe, he was not the first to boldly split infinitives. Looking back, one can clearly see that infinitives have been split for centuries (Mittins et al, 1970). Unlike a simple solution to the debate, the source of it is easily identified. Having served as a role model for the English grammar, Latin can be identified as the troublemaker. The Latin infinitive consists of one word which receives modality by the addition of inflections. The rule about the inseparability of the infinitive marker to and the verb, thus, steams from English grammarians holding onto Latin rules (Tieken-Boon van Ostade, 2008). I hate to break the news, but as opposed to the debate, Latin has been long dead.

As long as the debate on the acceptability of split infinitives, as varied are the opinions of language experts on the issue. David Crystal (2006: 126), for instance, describes splitting infinitives as following “the heartbeat of English” and thus sounding more natural. Although Bryan Garner the author of Modern American Usage (1998), acknowledges and accepts the split infinitives, he still suggests avoiding them as long as the meaning is not affected.

To split or not to split often becomes a question of ambiguity. There is a clear difference in meaning in the following two examples, taken from Crystal (2006: 127):

They failed completely to understand the problem.

They failed to completely understand the problem.

Depending on what speakers want to express, they will have to choose whether they will split the infinitive or not. Some may consider the split infinitive debate as the nit-picking of prescriptivists, whereas others may see a point in their argumentation. Whatever the stance, a serious discussion of how language is used should never be neglected.

source: The Telegraph

You may think that this debate is as old as the source of this usage debate, but in fact, the debate was popularised in the 19th century (O’Conner, 2009). One of the most influential publications on this matter was Henry Alford’s of A Plea for the Queen’s English (1866). Alford (1866) even argues that splitting infinitives is against common usage and having two choices is more than enough. Alford would be wincing non-stop when hearing today’s common usage. But what is it exactly? Do we split infinitives or do we avoid them? How do we use literally? What about the meaning of awesome? Do Americanisms still bug the British native speakers? Is English deteriorating? What does the general public consider to be proper English?These are the kind of questions I am interested in and hopefully (!), answers will be found to these questions with your help.

My request for current usage problems forms part of a wider research project called Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public. This project, which is run by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands,  aims to investigate, among other things, attitudes to British English usage. A similar, though much earlier study was conducted in the 1960s by Mittins et al. (1970), who investigated the attitudes of British English speakers on 50/55 usage problems. Since then, no comparable study has been undertaken. More than four decades have passed and the English language has undeniably changed. Instant messaging, texting, chatting and tweeting have become important ways of communicating which cannot be ignored. Netspeak or textese, as calls it Crystal (2008) for example, the varieties used in online communication and texting, are often said to have a negative or deteriorating effect on English.  Whether this is true or not, is disputed. Crystal (2008), for instance, enjoys the fresh breath of air which these new varieties bring us and watching language evolve.

In order to be able to investigate current usage problems, I would like to invite you to send me your own pet hates and thoughts on specific disputed language items. With your help a contemporary investigation of modern British English language usage will be conducted. Thus, all suggestions, comments or opinions are highly appreciated. Furthermore, usage polls about specific usage problems will be posted and you are kindly invited to share your attitudes to language usage. Having said this, the second usage poll is about the star of this blog post: the split infinitive.

References:

Alford, H. (1866). A Plea for the Queen’s English.London: Alexander Strahan.

Crystal, D. (2006). The Fight for English.Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.

Crystal, D. (2008). Txtng. The Gr8 Db8. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.

Garner, B. (1998). Modern American Usage. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.

Mittins, W.H. et al (1970). Attitudes to English Usage.OxfordUniversity Press.

O’Conner, P. (2009). Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. New York: Random House.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, T. (2008). “The grammars: Introduction.” In I. Tieken-Boon van Ostade (Ed.), Grammars, Grammarians and Grammar-Writing in Eighteenth Century England. p. 247-249. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

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