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TO SPLIT OR TO NOT SPLIT AN INFINITIVE -- THAT IS THE QUESTION

A press release came the other day from Oxford University Press. It carried a caption well calculated to strip the moss off the moss-backed mavens of English usage. In letters an inch high, the release proclaimed: "Infinitives should be split!"

Of course infinitives should be split. I have said so many times myself, but with a certain caveat. Infinitives should be split only when the splitting contributes to cadence and to clarity. Otherwise the dear things should be left as snugly confined as a yolk in an egg.

A small but faithful band of readers will never surrender to us heretics. They reason that if infinitives cannot be split in Latin, it must be wrong to split them in English. The analogy won't hold water. "Portare" is one word in Latin, but it takes two words to say "to carry" in English.

If it sounds better to say "to swiftly carry" than to say "swiftly to carry" or "to carry swiftly," there is no rule against it. Oxford's editors say, "In standard English the principle of allowing split infinitives is broadly accepted as both normal and useful."

The New York Times loves a split infinitive. This is regrettable, because some of the Times' columnists split infinitives very badly. Examples:

Thomas L. Friedman, who writes about foreign affairs, visited the Balkans in June. He talked with two Bosnian journalists. They expressed their desire "to never again live in the same country with their former Muslim and Croatian neighbors." The sentence, in my view, would have been vastly improved if the journalists had "expressed their desire never again to live in the same country . . . " The recasting puts the emphasis where it belongs.

In August, Friedman set a modest record by splitting three infinitives in one paragraph. Two of his splits were tidy, but the third was so much spaghetti. Mr. Clinton, he said, "has got to give up this crazy notion that his primary political role is to be Al Gore's campaign manager for the year 2000 election and to instead start fulfilling his own agenda . . . " Tight editing would have achieved a desirable parallelism by following "to give up" and "to be" with "instead to start."

The Times' Maureen Dowd stumbled into a hat trick last summer. Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts had been nominated to become ambassador to Mexico. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina stood obstinately in the way. Dowd said that Weld felt it wrong for one senator "to be able to arbitrarily, randomly, ideologically stop a qualified nominee from getting a hearing."

Suppose you were a copy editor at the Times with authority to recast selected sentences. Consider these splits:

"The House voted not to delay FCC regulations that will help open new markets for communications companies, but it refused to explicitly approve a proposal to impose stricter requirements for inspecting meat."

"The essence of politics is the art of the con -- the ability to convincingly declare that day is night, that up is down, that what is so is not."

"Intel suffered a public relations black eye a year ago, after the company appeared to ignore the significance of a math error in the Pentium processor. Ultimately the company backpedaled and offered to unconditionally replace the chip."

How do you vote? I would have let the first example go to press. Nothing useful would be gained by changing "to explicitly approve" to "explicitly to approve" or "to approve explicitly." I would have unsplit the second split: The politician's art is "to declare convincingly" that day is night. I probably would change No. 3 to say that Intel offered "unconditionally to replace the chip," but this is a close call.

Gene Roddenberry explained the mission of the starship Enterprise 30 years ago: "to explore new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no man has gone before."

These are noble missions, but it was a pity that Roddenberry split that last infinitive. If he had defined the mission as "to explore, to seek, "and boldly to go where no man has gone before," he would have had a sentence scored for trumpets.

Universal Press Syndicate

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