Friday, December 04, 2009

To Be Splitting, or Not to Be Splitting

An ad in the Vancouver Sun today advises us to be mindful of how much trashy stuff we buy, bestow, and discard at this time of year. (And as someone whose sister once presented him with a novelty pencil sharpener that required sticking a No.2 into a figurine's rectum, all I can say is, I hear ya.) The ad starts like this:

How much of what you give will end up as garbage?
In December alone, residents of Metro Vancouver will generate over 300,000 tonnes of garbage. The best way to reduce our garbage this holiday season is not to create it in the first place.
Technically, I suppose, there is no error there. In fact, many purists will say that it is precisely correct to write "not to create it" because it preserves the infinitive "to create." As it happens, I was reading about split infinitives yesterday (believe it or not, it was one of the more enjoyable parts of my day) in an article about the re-issue of Fowler's Modern English Usage, which included this excerpt from Fowler's:

The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know & condemn; (4) those who know & approve; & (5) those who know and distinguish.
It goes on to quote Fowler as saying, "Writing should be clear and smooth, and if maintaining the contiguity between to and its verb occasions an unclear or jarring sentence, the infinitive in question should be split." Also, the article includes this footnote:

William Safire, another prudent prescriptivist, also belonged to Fowler’s fifth group. In his New York Times language column Safire disagreed with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s uncompromising hostility to the split infinitive (“Sotomayoralities,” June 15, 2009): Though typically reluctant to divide an infinitive, “occasionally I choose to ‘break the rule’ when it helps the reader to better understand my point. (To understand better my point? No; that sounds awkward. To understand my point better? Not bad, but not as strong as having the better ahead of the understand.)”
All of which is to say that I think the sentence in the ad about Christmas garbage would have been more naturally expressed if the writer had gone ahead, split the infinitive, and written: "The best way to reduce our garbage is to not create it in the first place.

It reminds me of another well-split infinitive I saw recently, in a piece about bicycle safety that was headlined: "How to not get hit by cars." Not getting hit is the operative concern here, so if you stuck with the no-splitting rule and wrote, "how not to get hit by cars," it could be construed as suggesting that there is a right way to get hit by cars. So there you have a case of a split infinitive actually saving lives.