Case 11: I like to think of my car as a Porsche ...

17th March 2002

Filed by: Officer Taylor

The Offence

The Times T.V. critic David Chater, writing about the programmes for 11th March 2002, previews NCS Manhunt as follows:

Another episode of Poirot in Hades. Detective Inspector John Borne (David Suchet) paces up and down. He broods, smoulders and rages. He is so repressed that you expect him spontaneously to combust at any moment [...]

So the expectation arises spontaneously, does it?

The Verdict

Let us leave aside for the moment the relatively minor matter that Mr. Chater writes mindlessly smug, uninformative previews which generally elect to tell us little or nothing about the programmes themselves, preferring to major on the likes and dislikes of the reviewer. This is all too common among critics, and can be passed over with only a brief reference to the fact that they should all have their feet lightly toasted.

The concrete offence here is an unsplit infinitive. Chater has tied himself in knots trying to avoid splitting the infinitive ``to combust''. And he's done so at the far greater cost of splitting the expression ``spontaneously combust''. He's altered the whole sense of his sentence, and lost a vivid image, in the name of avoiding the horror that is the Split Infinitive.

But how horrible is it, in fact?

The prohibition against splitting infinitives (that is, putting another word between the ``to'' and the verb stem, as in ``to boldly go'') derives from a false analogy with Latin. In that language, an infinitive verb such as ``to go'' is a single word (``abeo'') so it's literally impossible to split it. There was a school of thought which said that writers ought therefore to avoid splitting infinitives in English too; but really that doesn't seem a strong enough reason, does it?

``Many people want to think of English as a Latin tongue. I'd like to think of my car as a Porsche, too, but that doesn't help me very much in reality.''
- Moshe Koenig

There is only one good reason for avoiding split infinitives, and that is simply that a lot of people don't like them. If you think that your writing might be read and judged by people who, for whatever reason, dislike split infinitives, then the pragmatic course may be to avoid them even though you know better. Sometimes, this battle just isn't worth fighting.

The Sentence

``To spontaneously combust'' is a strong image. ``Spontaneously to combust'' is not. We have no hesitation in sentencing David Chater to write some TV reviews that are actually about the programmes.

Next case!

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