Splitting infinitives and privatizing partially

Once upon a time, back in the 17th or 18th century, well before I was even in grade school, English grammarians had high hopes for their language. They wanted to polish it like marble and make it follow the rules of Latin grammar. For one thing, they tried to stamp out the practice of ending sentences with prepositions - a fussiness that Winston Churchill famously dismissed (according to legend, anyway) as nonsense up with which he would not put.

And they wanted to mend split infinitives, to banish any interloping modifier intruding upon the sweet unity of a verb with its preceding "to." They would have cringed at one of the most famous split infinitives of contemporary pop culture, the Star Trek motto "to boldly go where no man has gone before."

That "boldly" is misplaced! I can imagine a gaggle of grammarians gasping in horror. "The 'to' and the 'go' should adhere like glue! Away with the 'boldly'! It belongs after 'go'!"

Now just what is an infinitive? You can think of it as a verb form that is keeping its options open. It "expresses existence or action without reference to person, number, or tense and can be used as a noun," as one dictionary puts it. It hasn't been "limited," or made "finite" by being broken out of its shrink wrap and plugged into a sentence as a predicate verb. Compare the airy abstraction, the generic sweep, of "To drive into town during rush hour would be foolish" with the more concrete, "He drove into town at 8:30 this morning."

Most of us get this right most of the time. But controversy over the split infinitive ("to boldly go") lives on. People really do bring split infinitives up with copy editors in social situations where a bit of small talk is called for. "Hmm, by the way, how do you feel about split infinitives?"

Funny you should ask. I just happen to have an opinion in here somewhere. In Latin, as in a number of other tongues, infinitives are one word. The basic reason one "shouldn't" split an infinitive in English is that one can't split it in Latin.

That said, the rule, however dubious its logic, was enforced fiercely enough over the years by English teachers and others that many careful writers avoid the split anyway. After all, an infinitive is a unit, even if expressed on the page as two words.

And yet there are times when the split may be the best way to express an idea.

"We decided to always walk to school."

Once upon a time, in the 20th century, when I was discussing my seventh-grade English class with some friends, we came up with the foregoing sentence. It was an example of an infinitive that's better off split, at least if we mean one decision, for "always." The alternative that avoids the split ("always to walk") is ever so slightly ambiguous.

Nowadays, in the 21st century, President Bush wants to partially privatize Social Security. And I think the news media ought to let him - ought to let him split the infinitive in talking about it, that is. Seriously, in that sentence, where else are you going to put the adverb? "Wants partially?" Or "Social Security partially"? Or "partially secure, socially?" That way madness lies.

One might argue against including the adverb at all: "The president wants to privatize Social Security." Omit needless words, right? "Privatizing partially" is arguably a subset of "privatizing." Ah, but that would be misleading, conscientious headline writers cluck. And so defense of nuances trumps fastidiousness about wannabe Latin grammar rules.

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com /verbal_energy

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