Those pesky negatives (revisited)

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Aug 11 15:43:39 UTC 2004

On Aug 10, 2004, at 12:01 PM, Wilson Gray wrote:

> ...But, seriously, folks, I've been completely blind-sided by what
> seems to me to be the out-of-nowhere emergence of the "splitting of an
> infinitive" by inserting "not" that has now become common. I've racked
> my brain and I can't recall that I was ever taught a prescriptive rule
> against this. (FWIW, I've read only one prescriptive grammar in my
> life and the only thing that I remember about it is that it was a
> green hardcover, was written by a Jesuit, and was published by Loyola
> University Press, Chicago.) There was no need for a rule against it
> because NOBODY EVER DID IT! For all practical purposes, I never lived
> anywhere but Saint Louis for the first quarter-century of my life.
> Perhaps the non-occurrence of "to not VERB" was just a local
> phenomenon or something. Oh, well.

Some relevant observations:

1.  The invented No Split Infinitives "rule" follows from a
misapprehension about the syntax of infinitival "to", namely the idea
that "to" combines with a following verb *word*, whereas in fact it
combines with a following verb *phrase*.  (I'm prepared to defend this
analysis at some length, but i'll omit the defense here, trusting that
ADS-L readers will appreciate the point.)  Now, English VPs can contain
initial adverbials --
[You]  [must  [quickly finish dinner]].
[Quickly finishing dinner]  [would be a good idea].
-- so that "split infinitives" like
[You]  [have to  [quickly finish dinner]].
are predicted straightforwardly from these two pieces of syntax: "to"
combines with following VP, Adverbial can combine with following VP to
make a VP.  There would have to be some special constraint to *block*
such "split infinitives", which in a sense come for free, given the
rest of English syntax.

And indeed felicitous examples are easy to find:

(1)  And the F.C.C. has abdicated enforcement of the “public interest”
requirement in issuing licences. Time was, broadcasters had to
regularly reapply and show public-interest programming to earn
continuance; now...  (William Safire, NYT, 5/22/03)

(2)  It was certainly good to finally see documents indicating that
President Bush did not order the torture of prisoners. (NYT editorial,

(3)  East Palo Alto’s City Council is set to backtrack on action to
nearly double customer water bills after claims by a resident that
state laws applied to the hike required more notice and a public
hearing.  (Palo Alto Daily News story, 6/28/04)

Then, since VPs can begin with the adverbial "not" --
[You]  [must not  [not go to church]].  'You must avoid not going to
[Not going to church]  [would be a bad idea].
-- we predict "split infinitives" with "not", like
[I]  [am going to  [not pay attention to your complaints].

For example:

(4)  "Are you going to not do something just because a *boy* doesn’t
want you to?” asks Tiffany.  (Michael Thomas Ford, That's Mr. Faggot to
You (1999))

2.  Speaking roughly, there are two ways to avoid such "split
infinitives": preposing the adverbial from where it "belongs" to in
front of "to", or putting it later in its VP ("to reapply regularly" in
(1)).  These alternatives are not always available: later positioning
doesn't work in (2) or (3), or in any examples with "not", and pre-"to"
positioning is at best awkward (for me, ungrammatical) in quasi-modals
like "used to", "have to", and (as in (4)) "be going to".

It's fairly easy to collect examples where people have preposed an
adverbial to avoid "splitting the infinitive" and ended up with
something that only a mother could love:

(5) Mr. Blackburn added that the Panhandle Regional Narcotics
Trafficking Task Force failed adequately to supervise the agent, Tom
Coleman, in its eagerness to win battles in the war on drugs. (NYT news
story, 3/11/04)

(6)  Listen to a radio personality who caters to a conservative
audience and there’s a good chance you’ll hear an awkwardly unsplit
infinitive. Paul Harvey, for instance, goes out of his way to avoid
splits. I once heard him say something like “He went to Wal-Mart
personally to thank the employees.” (Bill Walsh, The Elephants of

3.  In fact, many people discern a meaning difference between the
preposed and the "split" variants, as in (7):

(7)     a.  I want/expect not to be disturbed.  [preposed]
        b.  I want/expect to not be disturbed.  [split]

According to these people (most days of the week I'm inclined to be in
their number), the preposed variant expresses an attitude (of desire or
expectation) towards a state ('I want/expect it not to be the case that
I am disturbed', 'I want/expect to avoid being disturbed'), while the
split variant expresses an attitude towards an action, or a possible
agent in that action ('I want/expect that I not be disturbed', 'I
want/expect X not to disturb me').  The meaning difference is parallel
to that between the two locations ("upper", postmodifying, and "lower",
premodifying) for "not" with modals, both illustrated in "You must not
not go to church" (above).   (This is one of the ways in which
infinitival "to" acts syntactically like a modal verb.)

The meaning difference is subtle, and in many contexts the difference
isn't important.  But speakers and writers sometimes want to express
the attitude-towards-action meaning, and in those cases the "split"
variant will be just the thing for their purposes.

4.  Coming Attractions: an argument that English does in fact have an
intervention constraint applying to "to" + VP combinations (and to P +
NP-object combinations and also to some V + NP-object combinations),
though virtually none of the textbook "split infinitive" examples are
of this sort.

arnold (zwicky at

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