24 Aug 2006

To properly split an infinitive

Submitted by Karl Hagen
As many of you probably know, the prohibition against the split infinitive is one of the most notorious non-rules of English grammar. I say non-rule because even incredibly conservative books Like Fowler's essentially dismiss it as necessary for good writing. And yet some people are still afraid to insert an adverb between the infinitive marker to and the verb. Hence we find sentences like the following, from a legal memo just posted on Groklaw (emphasis added):

As a result of SCO's failure to comply with the Court's orders and Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(e) -- which left IBM looking for unidentified needles in an enormous haystack of operating system code, methods and concepts -- IBM was unable properly to prepare a defense to SCO's allegations.

Anyone who thinks that this is better writing than "to properly prepare" has no business giving anyone advice about how to structure a sentence.

I seem to recall other instances of similarly awkward unplit infinitives in legal documents. Perhaps this is a standard that judges are wont to enforce (or that lawyers are worried judges will enforce. In any case, it's a perfect example of how trying to follow an illusory notion of "correct" English can lead you to be a worse writer than if you just ignored the pedants and trusted your instinct.