Sine Qua Nonsense
I haven’t read Harry Mount’s acclaimed new book Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life, nor do I intend to. Latin is to blame for some of our dumbest English grammar rules.
Mount’s been enjoying a bit of celebrity of late, with his op-ed about why the presidential candidates should learn Latin sitting atop The New York Times’ most-emailed list last week.
My ire has nothing to do with being forced to recite Aeneid passages while my high school Latin teacher played the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack because he thought it made it sound more dramatic. (I only wish that were a joke.) Rather, it’s because, as Mount says, we have ancient Rome to blame for the rule against splitting infinitives.
Latin infinitives are one word, so someone decided you shouldn’t split up English infinitives (e.g., “to boldly go” becomes “to go boldly”). Which is dumb.
There’s a good reason Latin is dead. Grammarians who insist on antiquated, pointless rules: You’re next.
While we have to agree that Latin grammar ain't English grammar, I think it needs to be pointed out that not all Latin infinitives are one word, Harry Mount notwithstanding (think future active and passive; perfect passive).
John Rundin scripsit:
I always blamed the rule about split infinitives on the Germans. In German, it is not permitted to
put ANYTHING between a "zu" and an infinitive: (e.g., "zu machen"). It's possible that the Germans
got this rule from the Romans. But Germans really seem to like it and never violate it--even in the most colloquial
speech--so I suspect the rule arose in German itself and was not imposed from above by Latin-influenced
prescriptive grammarians. The implication is that the rule in English is a futile and bizarrely antiquarian attempt
to preserve German rules, not Latin ones.