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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Sunday, June 01, 2008

to split or not to split?

while recently editing a paper, I found myself automatically correcting split infinitives. while I was taught that this grammatical construction is generally to be avoided, there are time when (I think) it allows a certain specificity and precision of expression not easily achievable otherwise. for example "to truly enjoy great music" and "to enjoy truly great music" mean rather different things, namely, truly enjoying music that is great or enjoying music that is truly great. I suppose one could say "truly to enjoy great music," but that starts becoming unclear to which clause "truly" belongs. for example, in "I want Henry truly to enjoy great music," does truly modify "want" or "to enjoy"?

at the Language Log, it was recently suggested that, rather than debate such rules using only argumentation, it may be possible to test some of these empirically. this is not a matter of statistics about which usages are more common, but rather studies about which usages are more readily and easily comprehensible. the specific examples used in that post focus on the use of "they" or "them" as a third person singular neuter pronoun in different contexts, e.g., the presence or absence of a gender expectation for the antecedent. much of the methodology of the studies mentioned have to do with speed of reading and comprehension, based on the cognitivist metaphor of the mind as a computer. while I'm not sure I buy or like this methodology, it might be possible to do similar experiments based on final comprehension as the measure of effectiveness. for example, give the three variants of the split infinitive listed above, and then determine whether people think my wanting is true, Henry's enjoyment is true, or the greatness of the music is true. by and large, I'm not an experimentalist, but it seems like something like this should be via. what exactly the results would tell you is another question entirely. there's also a question (raised in the comment on the Language Log post) about whether the primary purpose of grammar is to be clear or if there are other concerns, such as aesthetic, historical, or cultural ones, that should be considered, as well.

in general, I agree, split infinitives should probably be avoided, but what about when they allow a specificity of expression not otherwise possible? when "fixing" the split infinitive changes the meaning of the sentence in a way not easy to restore, I'm a little hesitant about not splitting the infinitive.

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  • Interesting. This is something I think about a lot as well.

    You missed an option though: "To think about great music truly." Yet again, this could change the meaning, but it is an option, right?

    By Anonymous eszter, at Saturday, June 14, 2008 3:00:00 AM  

  • indeed, another viable option. I suspect that "to enjoy great music truly" might have similar potential for ambiguity to "truly to enjoy great music," but the former might be slightly better in terms of specificity.

    then again, there's an implicit assumption here that being more specific is desirable. in some contexts, such as poetry, the writer might want the ability to imply several different potential meanings through multiple interpretations of the same language.

    By Blogger Jystar, at Saturday, June 14, 2008 11:31:00 AM  

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