Various thoughts and quotes, including a quote from Shaw on split infinitives
Posted by: AlanScott 08:03 am EDT 04/03/21
In reply to: re: I think the ideal correction would be . . . - pagates 01:12 pm EDT 04/02/21

In the New York Times of August 18, 1929, there was an article titled “The Split Infinitive Again Finds Support.” From the article: “[S]ince about 1919 it has ceased to be a crime to split infinitives. Dr. Frank H. Vizetelly, lexicographer, indicates as much, and he is warmly seconded by Dr. H. W. Fowler, editor of the New Oxford Dictionary.”

Later in the article: “Writers of current literature increasingly violate the old rule that, perhaps more than any other, made composition stilted and tended to discourage the spread of learning.”

As I mentioned in a reply to keikekaze, Fowler in his A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, spent several pages writing about why the blanket prohibition against split infinitives was pretty silly. I never read it till last night, and I was surprised to find that it was very funny. Fowler knew how to make fun of people.

Split infinitives can be found in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, Hardy, Keats, Twain, Matthew Arnold and I’m sure plenty of other major English-language writers before Shaw. In fact, I found a few articles from the early 1900s mocking academic strictures on what is supposed to be unacceptable in good writing, with the prohibition on split infinitives being among the targets.

But Shaw was an iconoclast, and he created another iconoclast in Higgins. While Higgins certainly would have been very knowledgeable about what was considered good grammar and what was not, he might well have found some of the rules silly and not worth following.

Indeed, I found a number of articles and books in which a letter that Shaw is said to have written in 1907 to the London Times was quoted. I wish I could have found proof that I considered definitive that the quote was for real, but I did find it quoted by some well-respected writers. Attesting most of all to the likely authenticity of the quote, the Times itself published a letter in 1992 in which Shaw's letter was quoted. I presume that if the widely quoted letter was bogus, someone at the Times would have picked up on it. Here is what Shaw (it seems) wrote:

“There is a busybody on your staff who devotes a lot of his time to chasing split infinitives. Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it. I call for the immediate dismissal of this pedant. It is of no consequence whether he decides to go quickly or quickly to go or to quickly go. The important thing is that he should go at once.”

If the letter is not authentic, it should be.

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