What’s the reason to not do it?

I was wandering around through Twitter, and I read the following tweet from someone called @GrammarMonkeys: “not to participate” — there’s no reason to split that infinitive (others, yes, but not this one)

That’s sort of like saying to a chicken, “There’s no reason to cross that road (other roads, yes, but not this one).” You see, what if the chicken just wants to cross the road? Is there a general rule saying “Don’t cross roads without a special reason to do so”? No, there isn’t.

And is there a rule in English that says “Don’t split infinitives” or even “Don’t split infinitives without a special reason to do so”?

No, there isn’t. That’s not to say that any given instance of a “split infinitive” is the best way to phrase it. But the reasons for it being the best or not the best are quite individual and do not relate to some rule about “split infinitives.” (I use the scare quotes because in to participate, for instance, participate is the infinitive and to is a separate word that in many but not all places travels with the infinitive. Yes, I know you probably heard otherwise from your high school English teacher. High school teachers are not actually subject matter experts.)

I’ve covered the subject of the grammatical superstition against splitting infinitives enough in my blog that I won’t repeat it at length in this post; just read Whoever tells you to always avoid splitting infinitives is wrong to get extensive details. What I want to say is that “there’s no reason to split that infinitive” proceeds as though one needs a special reason – as though there really were a rule. But there isn’t any such rule any more than there are canals on Mars or polar bears in Antarctica.

Thus, a perfectly suitable response to “there’s no reason to split that infinitive” could be “there’s no reason not to split it” – or, if you want, “there’s no reason to not split it.”

Let’s just make a little analogy. Say some authority figure stopped you because you were wearing red. “You can’t wear red,” says the cop or teacher or whoever. You bring out your rulebook, or take it to court, or whatever, and show quite clearly that there is no real rule or law against wearing red, it’s just an idea that someone made up. Subsequently, you’re walking down the street, and the same (or another) authority figure says, “You have a red tie on. There’s no reason to wear a red tie – other red things, yes, but not this one.” You are perfectly within your rights to say “There’s no reason not to, either” or something perhaps less polite.

Does this mean that I think that “splitting infinitives” is fine in all situations? In fact, what it means is that it’s not ungrammatical anywhere. It’s not always the best choice for word flow, but let’s not present stylistic calls as grammatical rules.

And it happens that the option of “splitting infinitives” adds nuance to our language. There is a real, perceptible difference between really to do something and to really do something. One can even use the difference between not to do and to not do as one of emphasis: to not participate can be taken as a more deliberate, pointed abstention from participating – effectively, to not-participate – compared with the simple absence of action in not to participate. There’s also the matter of the rhythm: to not participate is three iambs, and not to participate is two dactyls. In the context of a given sentence, that can make a difference.

So do it, or don’t do it. It’s your choice on the basis of your meaning and sentence flow. You don’t need a special reason; you’re not being granted an exception.

One response to “What’s the reason to not do it?

  1. Just saw a tweet from @GreatDismal (William Gibson) that illustrates the use of putting “to” before “not” in some cases: “I’m content to not wear Abercrombie & Fitch for free. But if it cost something, I suppose I’d pay.” You can see that he is not paying to not-wear A&F, rather than (as would be the case with “not to wear Abercrombie & Fitch for free”) paying to wear A&F. This structure allows the pointed negation of an action, as opposed to the simple absence of performing the action.

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