The State of the Language: 'For the Ear Trieth Words, as the Mouth Tasteth Meat'


JUST why the split, cleft, gashed, hashed, or mangled infinitive should have become the rallying point it is for contempt and fury — on both sides of the argument — it is hard to say. Possibly the reason has something to do with our half-conscious perception that here is a point of grammar that involves a problem of style, or a point of style that involves a problem of grammar. Anyway, the infinitive-withadverbial-interruption agitates more persons more extravagantly than almost any disputed issue that touches style alone or grammar alone. A good half of the letters I receive about diction mention the split infinitive as if one’s attitude toward it were almost the ultimate test of linguistic right thinking.

Before I confess why it seems to me preferable to leave the infinitive unviolated, allow me an aside on the frequent possibility of sidestepping the issue altogether. What splits the infinitive is an adverbial element placed between the particle to and the verbal part of the construction. To the trained writer the adverb is suspect beyond any other part of speech. His instinctive first question is, ‘Do I honestly need this modifier?’ Usually he finds that he does not need it, that the passage is firmer without it, and that a stroke of the blue pencil simultaneously saves him a word and abolishes the question, To split or not to split?

But sometimes we do need to qualify the infinitive; and I, for one, have long preferred to settle the issue as a lowly question of pure tactics, on this basis: —

Many good readers say that the infinitive may be split, many others that it may not. A class incomparably greater than both lumped together does not care either way, or even notice. The remaining group consists of those who maintain that the infinitive must be split if modified at all; but this group is almost invisible numerically, and to my thinking it is oddly motived. Most of its members seem not to favor the split infinitive in itself half so cordially as they detest the academic preoccupation with correctness. They demand that the infinitive be split because they think the non-splitters are mostly pedants and fussbudgets, and they are strong for almost anything that irks or dismays a pedant. For my part, I doubt that the cause of good English is much served by the offense given by a writer’s going out of his way to incur the purist’s frown. If I am to shock my readers, I want to do it in earnest, by what I really am and really mean. Feeling so, I can only adopt the practice that offends the smallest number, and no one gratuitously. Habitually to avoid the split infinitive is to conciliate the many who object to it while still not alienating either those who don’t mind it or those who don’t notice the difference.

Will someone with time on his hands unearth for me a certain compound fracture of the infinitive that must have set an all-time world’s record for the language? That redoubtable infinitive-dynamiter, Thomas Hardy, achieved in an early edition of one of his novels — Far from the Madding Crowd, unless my memory is shamefully at fault — a split infinitive within a split infinitive: that is, an infinitive broken off after to in favor of an adverbial parenthesis so highly developed as to contain within itself a casual split infinitive of the common to-sincerely-admire pattern. When I tried to refer to this feat of virtuosity, years after my first awed discovery, I failed to run it down in the edition at hand. Did someone induce Hardy to destroy it, perhaps by asking his publishers for a plate correction?


HABERDASHERY. A semipopular assumption, maybe too pat to be true, is that this queer word owes its being to the German Habt Ihr das? (Have you that?); the haberdasher’s establishment being, thus, a habt-Ihr-dasserie, or have-you-thattery. To Lionel S. Marks, Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the Graduate School of Harvard University, I happened to mention that such an establishment is now sometimes self-styled a haberderia (Mr. Mencken records haberteria); whereupon Professor Marks suggested the possibility of a different derivation, one that hales the word from its supposed German origin and thrusts it upon the French: —

The word avoirdupois is based on the noun avoir, meaning a possession or article. I take it it is an abbreviation of balance pour les avoirs de pois, in contradistinction to the scales for weighing gems, gold, etc. I came across an English spelling of about a hundred years ago, haberdupois. This suggests that haberdasher may derive from avoir. For example, one can imagine the distinction between stores which sell grain and other cheaper materials and those which sell silks and linens. The latter might be called magasins des avoirs chers as contrasted with the magasins des avoirs de bon marché.

Professor Marks estimates that to perform the public service of settling the true origin of haberdasher might keep someone out of mischief for a year. (He nominates me, but I do not choose to run.) Might n’t it take any period from a few hours to a few lifetimes, according to the searchers’ luck or no-luck? But perhaps the knowledge and even the proof exist.

WILL, SHALL. From Hartford, Connecticut, comes a telling aside on this inexhaustible subject —

What are we to think when such a man as Dr. Moffatt can translate Matthew x. 21 thus: ‘If I can only touch his robe, I will recover’? — J. R. VAN PELT

And that very distinguished New England novelist, Miss Alice Brown, ends some uncompromising remarks on the same subject with this interesting surmise: —

It almost seems as if there might be a conspiracy in favor of auxiliaries beginning with w and in condemnation of those which begin with s. Will, won’t, would are overworked. Shall, shan’t, and should are loafing, hands in their pockets.

Very possibly a widespread if unconscious feeling that the language has an excess of sibilants has played an obscure part in the collapse of shall. — A systematic, though necessarily incomplete, discussion of shall and will is among this department’s agenda.

THE HOLLYWOOD ADJECTIVE. A friend-by-mail in Washington, D. C., Mr. G. R. Cooley, reports that Jimmy Durante remarked of a motion picture: ’It’s stupendous, it’s colossal, it’s almost mediocre.’

SPECIE. Mr. George Hewitt Myers, also of Washington, has been good enough to send me, from the rotogravure section of the Washington Post, a page containing the caption: ‘Specie of palm shown in photo is Pandanus, or breadfruit tree.’ (Incidentally the pandanus is, I believe, no palm.) Well, have we not the word of Mr. Mencken and of Dialect Notes for it that in part of the Middle South cheese is the standard plural form of the recognized singular chee?