Splitting Infinitives, or Splitting Hairs?

by Chris Berger

I have a confession to make: I am a grammar stickler. Or at least, I try to be (I am probably too absentminded, and therefore too sloppy, for it to be a genuine obsession, though I come close). My friends’ and colleagues’ annoyance notwithstanding, however, it is an affliction I have come to live with and even embrace.

It was not always this way, though. I did not begin to write (or to read) properly until my second year as an undergraduate. This will sound silly no doubt, not to mention counterintuitive. How can a nineteen-going-on-twenty-year-old make it to that point without being able to read and write? I agree that the notion is a pathetic one, make no mistake. It is all the more dismaying that it indicates what can be seen to be true about the overwhelming majority of university students and, unfortunately, of university graduates.

I have no stomach for making this a manifesto for the reform of literacy education in primary and secondary schools. I am neither a teacher nor a curriculum specialist. Rather, I want to point out a problem and encourage university students and graduates that it is both treatable (with some personal initiative) and worthwhile treating.

It was an excellent teacher in my second year from whom I learned the importance of care and detail in written communication. The context was a lecture course in the history of political thought, in which we read a number of books that required a careful eye, a thoughtful approach, and a patient disposition. Fascinating as the substance of such books is, the meticulous crafting of such prose (or verse) by authors of this caliber serves as the material for learning the subtleties and necessities of clarity and purpose in written communication. They serve as a veritable training ground in language.

Skipping over the details of the “great awakening” jump-started by that year, I want to linger over what the process of quality reading instills in a person: an awareness and harnessing of the sheer power of well-crafted language to move a human being to action, awaken insight, and to accentuate feeling and consciousness. It is not that sloppy or careless writing necessarily betrays natural laziness or ignorance in its writer (though it may) – it is that it is ineffective at conveying what an author intends.

Given that clarity in communication is regarded ostensibly as being of paramount importance, whether in professional or academic writing, it is curious that grammatical training does not receive more attention than it does. The writing of most students entering the post-secondary system is, quite frankly, not very good, and their ability to read is not much better; still less excusable is that there is little if any improvement exhibited by graduates of that system.

Even if we do not care to be poets or novelists or playwrights, professional considerations alone would seem to dictate that there is a serious problem impacting people’s very livelihoods; can we be expected to be taken seriously if we cannot express ourselves articulately? Even within an environment in which the bar is admittedly low, excellence in written communication should be regarded as all the more important by those who would seek to set themselves apart. One can tell a lot about a person by how he or she writes and, for that matter, by how he or she reads.

Noticing little things in someone’s writing, like changing tense mid-sentence or even, yes, splitting infinitives, negatively impacts our impression of that person, even though we may not be fully conscious of it, and especially if we have no prior familiarity with that person. This is not even to mention more glaring issues that betray a lack of coherent thought, such as weak reasoning. The art of rhetoric — understood in the classic sense of the art of persuasion by communicating reasons to others, not in the current sense of merely manipulating emotions — merits an important place in the upbringing of competent adults. Yet today it is in vogue to dismiss objections to imprecision in communication by claiming that “language is constantly evolving” and that opinions are wholly subjective. These are cop-outs smacking of sociological abstraction; they delay the critique by a few steps, but do not resolve it.

Of course language evolves and changes, but it is fallacious to conclude from this observation that language is not made intelligible by rules intrinsic to itself, regardless of which language it is or which form it takes. The English of Chaucer is different from the English of Shakespeare, and both are different from the English of Austen and from our English in twenty-first century Canada. But this does not change the fact that each of these dialects is structured by grammatical rules without which we could not make sense of one another. That we can understand different English dialects from other times and places makes apparent that these rules are not so fluid as the “language evolves” excuse would have them; and it is these rules, or rather our awareness that rules exist in every language, that allows us to learn and render intelligible languages that are entirely different from our native tongue.

Language is an essentially human phenomenon, one that is of a piece with our humanity itself; it is not merely an ephemeral historical or sociological construct. And this is in turn indicative that subjective opinion is not everything; that we can exchange our reasons behind our opinions amongst ourselves in order to improve and replace those opinions shows us that it is indeed possible to appeal to a shared human ability to arrive at understandings not reducible to fleeting, sub-rational emotion.

Perhaps the best means of learning to write well is to read the work of those who write well, and then to use this experience to tutor one’s own practice of writing. Dime-a-dozen self-help tomes and Fifty Shades do not cut it.  This is not to say that reading for mindless escape or for gaining a bit of technical advice is to be altogether rejected, but rather that one must learn to discriminate between “fast food” blather and a gourmet feast of great writing.  Those who practice an art of “writing between the lines” are especially instructive: it is in reading them that one comes to recognize, to appreciate, and, if one is especially sharp and disciplined, to learn how to write in such a way as to convey precisely what one means about meaty matters in no more nor no fewer words than is necessary for the thought at hand and for whom it is intended.  Xenophon, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Ernest Hemingway would be very instructive in this.

Writing and reading in this way is difficult. At its core, it requires learning to think in this way; it means changing one’s thought process and one’s way of cognizing one’s surroundings and one’s place within them. In this sense, it is not hyperbolic to say that, if education is about raising a human being and if a human being is a being who can think and communicate that thought to other human beings (both of which I think can be shown to be true), then careful, deliberate reading and writing rightfully form the core of what education ought to be.

Pay a little more attention to how you read, pay a little more attention to how you write, and I think you’ll find yourself paying a little more attention to how you think. The pay-offs might surprise you.

Visual courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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