James J. Kilpatrick

Not long ago a pained letter came from a high school senior in a Midwestern state. At her earnest request, she remains nameless and stateless. She wrote:

"In an assigned editorial about the war in Iraq, I wrote that 'President Bush would like nothing better than to quickly find a way to bring most of the troops home.' Miss Begotten ringed 'to quickly find' and gave me a point off for the S.I., the Split Infinitive. Please tick her off."

Many months have passed since we last discussed the Infinitus Spliticus in this space. Let us revive this old bete noire and order him back to his cave. A split infinitive is the familiar construction in which a modifier -- usually an adverb -- is inserted between the "to" and the operative verb. Here the supposed offense against grammatical tradition was "to quickly find." (I assume the intended thought was not "to quickly bring.")

There is not now, and there never has been, an ironclad rule against splitting an infinitive. It is like the supposed rule against ending a sentence with a preposition -- a rule, as Winston Churchill famously remarked, "up with which I will not put." In my experience, a sentence often will be smoother, and its meaning more immediately evident, if the infinitive is left chastely compact. Even more often, a self-conscious effort to unsplit the thing is worse than leaving the split alone. The first consideration is meaning. The second is euphony.

A few years ago an editorial writer for The New York Times opined that "the administration will have to radically rethink its approach to postwar Iraq. Unrealistically optimistic assumptions have led the White House to severely underestimate troop and spending requirements." Surely Miss Begotten would not prefer "to rethink its approach to postwar Iraq radically." Or, in the second instance, would "severely to underestimate" or "to underestimate severely" have been an improvement?

Other splits are not so easily condoned. From The New York Times, about an ambivalent secretary of state: "No one expected Mr. Powell to incessantly air policy differences in public." The writer might have had a tauter sentence with "incessantly to air" or as an alternative, "to air policy differences incessantly in public."

In the Times a year ago, the head of United Airlines outlined steps the company was taking "to eventually emerge from bankruptcy protection." Would "to emerge eventually" have been better? As copy editor, it's your call.

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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