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Split the Infinitive. Please!

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

split-infinitive

[Illustration taken from an article by Tom Chivers in The Telegraph*]

There’s not much to this post. Just a one-sentence quote from a letter to the editors of the New York Review of Books written by Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff. But I’m going to take some time getting to the sentence, in order to provide context. The context comes in two strands.

1. The first strand is not germane to the point of this post, but it seems only fair that I explain what Rogoff’s letter is about. Rogoff and his Harvard colleague Carmen Reinhart wrote a 2010 paper, Growth in a Time of Debt, that became immensely influential as a source for those arguing in favor of economic austerity policies. Last April, three University of Massachusetts economists published a paper showing that the Reinhart-Rogoff paper had errors in its data and analysis. Controversy ensued.

A highlight of the controversy has been an ongoing argument between Reinhart-Rogoff and Paul Krugman, including this letter written to Krugman in late May and Krugman’s response.

Which brings us to the New York Review, on whose pages Rogoff has continued the debate, noting that Krugman has used a review of a book by other writers to continue “his attack on me and Carmen Reinhart.” Krugman responds that

Mr. Rogoff and Ms. Reinhart seem to have misunderstood the nature of this discussion. I have never attacked them as individuals, and have often praised their earlier work. However, their claim that severe negative consequences follow when public debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP has had an enormous, malign impact on policy discussion. It doesn’t matter whether they themselves are policy hard-liners; the alleged result was out there—and despite important questions raised about their claims from the beginning, they did nothing, as far as anyone can tell, to dissuade others from citing their work on behalf of harsh austerity policies. I’m sorry if they feel mistreated—but this is about policy, not about personal feelings, theirs or mine.

2. The second strand is the persistence of the rule not to split infinitives in English writing. The nonsensical nature of this rule has been well treated over the years in a sequence of articles by Geoff Pullum at Language Log and Lingua Franca. See, for instance, this and this and this from last June and this from a year ago.

Here is the opening paragraph from the first of the linked Pullum articles:

I have commented elsewhere on the fact that writers in The Economist are required to write unnatural or even ungrammatical sentences rather than risk the wrath of the semi-educated public by “splitting an infinitive” (putting a preverbal modifier immediately before the verb in a to-infinitival complement clause). The magazine published a sentence containing the phrase publicly to label itself a foreign agent where clarity demanded to publicly label itself a foreign agent.

Now to the point of this post, which is to offer another stunning example of the damage done when a writer insists on not splitting an infinitive. The writer is Kenneth Rogoff, the example coming from his New York Review letter. I have already quoted a fragment from the opening paragraph. Here is the paragraph in full.

In his review of books by Mark Blyth, Neil Irwin, and David A. Stockman, New York Times columnist Professor Paul Krugman continues his attack on me and Carmen Reinhart. Never mind that only one of the three books even mentions us. This is no obstacle to Krugman’s relentless campaign narrowly to circumscribe and grossly to misrepresent our research and its influence. His goal seems to be to paint us as extremists whose work is only referred to by conservatives. In reality, our long-standing position has been as centrists in the economic policy debate.

Narrowly to circumscribe. Grossly to misrepresent. How dare he!

*The Chivers article is well worth reading, though beware its final paragraph. (See here and here and the note at the end here for the reason why.)

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