How the Harvard Law Review Scarred me for Life

gannett.gifLike many a law student with academic ambitions, I spent much of my law-school life doing law-review work. I Bluebooked. I line edited. Eventually, I spent my 3L year reading what seemed like hundreds of manuscripts in a vain effort to identify the second coming of “The Reliance Interest in Contract Damages.” I learned a great deal, but the experience has also left some lasting scars on my psyche. I am talking, of course, about the split infinitive rule.

Prior to my trial by editorial fire, I was vaguely aware that there were infinitives and that they were not to be split. I can’t say, however, that I worried all that much about it. Indeed, I am not sure that I could actually identify an infinitive if called upon to do so. All that changed once I passed the doors of Gannett House. Merciless senior editors drilled into me the absolute necessity to find and to destroy all split infinitives. One is not to write “I came to clearly say” rather one must write “I came to say clearly.” Failure to catch such an error in a professor’s manuscript would result in a note placed in your file by a senior editor, which would then be read in a year’s time at the elections where you made your bid for fame, glory, and absolute power. (Incidentally, I am not making up the part about the files; the senior editors at the HLR really keep files on the junior editors. It is vaguely J. Edgar Hoover-ish.) This was high-stakes grammar.

Here is my problem. I think that the split infinitive rule is stupid. It sounds stilted to me to say, “Justice O’Connor failed to adopt clearly a rule” rather than “Justice O’Connor failed to clearly adopt a rule.” In short, I like split infinitives. I think that the English language would be much happier were we to drop the whole insistence on keeping the infinitive unsplit. The problem is that I no longer have the split-infinitive innocence that once I had. I read a perfectly serviceable sentence containing the phrase “to clearly establish” and try as I might a little editorial voice in my head says, “Split infinitive, split infinitive, split infinitive.” I read some awkward locution, and the same voice in my head says, “Sure it is a sucky sentence, but he didn’t have much choice unless he was going to split that infinitive.” I am deprived of both the joy of natural language and any real appreciation for accurate grammar. In short, HLR has permanently scarred my relationship with this particular part of the English language. I find myself just trying to avoid adverbs as a result. It’s sad.

I want it to be the way it was before, when I just thought that it was better to say, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” More than that, however, I want to finally, definitively, totally, absolutely, truly, and gleefully repeal the split infinitive rule.

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19 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    You’re right to think the split infinitive rule is stupid. It _is_ stupid and plays no role in the grammer of English. It was (I’m told) imported by those who wanted to make English more “logical”, like Latin, where, of course, infinitives can’t be split. But they can be in English, it increase clarity to do so in many cases, and it’s a common practice. Therefore, it’s not against the rules of English grammer and anyone who thinks it is is a bit dimb. Fight the stupidity- slit your infinitives when it makes the sentence clearer.

  2. Tom Cotter says:

    The previous poster is absolutely right. There is no absolute grammatical rule against splitting infinitives. If splitting seems appropriate–for example, one wishes to put unusual stress on the adverb, or to avoid sounding stiff–there is no reason not to split. See, e.g., Strunk & White (3d ed. 1979) pp. 58, 78. Law review editors who insist otherwise are simply ignorant.

  3. Roger says:

    God I’m glad I was on a law review that doesn’t care about stupid crap like that. (And doesn’t bluebook!)

  4. greglas says:

    Nate, poor you! Scarred that way by HLR! There’s probably a 12-step program somewhere…

    Wikipedia, which I think we should all consider the utmost authority on the pressing issue of split infinitives, says: “Present reference texts of usage deem simple split infinitives unobjectionable.”

  5. Cathy says:

    Even the OED doesn’t require them not to be split (or is that “to not be split”?)

  6. Eric Goldman says:

    Even if it’s against the rules, why not just break the rules?

  7. Alex says:

    It’s nice to see to be reminded that few traits dominate the so-called elite as much as pettiness.

  8. Alex says:

    It’s nice to be reminded that few traits dominate the so-called elite as much as pettiness.

  9. Greg says:

    Grammar Girl concurs in the assessment that split infinitive is an anachronism:

  10. Karen says:

    But you should never say “over the fence, I threw the cow some hay”!

  11. I believe that the current rule, for quite some time, has been that split infinitives are ok. Back in antiquity, there used to be a rule against split infinitives, but no more. In other words, Harvard Law Review is far beyond the times. There is no longer any split infinitive rule — at least not according to 21st Century grammar. Maybe soon, HLR will modernize and drop the split infinitive rule, as well as get a snazzier-looking cover and drop the anonymous notes requirement.

  12. Susan S says:

    This from the mother who is a professional editor. I’m proud of you son. Split those infinitives!!!

  13. Bruce Boyden says:

    “Maybe soon, HLR will modernize and drop the split infinitive rule, as well as get a snazzier-looking cover and drop the anonymous notes requirement.”

    HLR editor [coughing, monocle falling from eye]: “Fie on you, sir! Never!”

  14. Jim Graves says:

    How long has it been since you were on law review? The Chicago Manual of Style came around to allowing split infinitives in 1983:

    If the CMS allows writers to occasionally split infinitives, that should be good enough for anyone.

  15. Casey says:

    And, while we are at it, let’s get rid of the foolish which/that distinction. The only people I have ever met who follow this are petty lawyers.

  16. Tuan says:

    “To boldly go where no man has gone before” sounds much better than the latinized “to go boldly…”

  17. BMM says:

    The problem is that being on law review is a lot about being anal, so its hard to determine which things are good to be anal about (accuracy) and which things are bad to be anal about (pointless, outdated rules).

  18. Ray Ward says:

    Splitting infinitives isn’t new. In Fowler’s first “Dictionary of Modern English Usage” (1926), Fowler approves of splitting when necessary to avoid either ambiguity or “patent artificiality”:

    We admit that separation of to from its infinitive … is not in itself desirable, and we shall not gratuitously say either ‘to mortally wound’ or ‘to mortally be wounded’ … We maintain, however, that a real split infinitive, though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, and to patent artificiality…

    H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 560 (1926). There’s also that Bryan Garner fellow, who says, “Although few armchair grammarians [or HLR editors?] seem to know it, some split infinitives are regarded as perfectly proper.” Garner’s Modern American Usage 743 (2003). Fowler and Garner would say: try to avoid splitting an infinitive, but don’t do so at the expense of writing something horrid.

  19. Reminds me of what Churchill had to say about ending a sentence with a preposition:

    “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”