How the Harvard Law Review Scarred me for Life
posted by Nate Oman
Like many a law student with academic ambitions, I spent much of my law-school life doing law-review work. I Bluebooked. I line edited. Eventually, I spent my 3L year reading what seemed like hundreds of manuscripts in a vain effort to identify the second coming of “The Reliance Interest in Contract Damages.” I learned a great deal, but the experience has also left some lasting scars on my psyche. I am talking, of course, about the split infinitive rule.
Prior to my trial by editorial fire, I was vaguely aware that there were infinitives and that they were not to be split. I can’t say, however, that I worried all that much about it. Indeed, I am not sure that I could actually identify an infinitive if called upon to do so. All that changed once I passed the doors of Gannett House. Merciless senior editors drilled into me the absolute necessity to find and to destroy all split infinitives. One is not to write “I came to clearly say” rather one must write “I came to say clearly.” Failure to catch such an error in a professor’s manuscript would result in a note placed in your file by a senior editor, which would then be read in a year’s time at the elections where you made your bid for fame, glory, and absolute power. (Incidentally, I am not making up the part about the files; the senior editors at the HLR really keep files on the junior editors. It is vaguely J. Edgar Hoover-ish.) This was high-stakes grammar.
Here is my problem. I think that the split infinitive rule is stupid. It sounds stilted to me to say, “Justice O’Connor failed to adopt clearly a rule” rather than “Justice O’Connor failed to clearly adopt a rule.” In short, I like split infinitives. I think that the English language would be much happier were we to drop the whole insistence on keeping the infinitive unsplit. The problem is that I no longer have the split-infinitive innocence that once I had. I read a perfectly serviceable sentence containing the phrase “to clearly establish” and try as I might a little editorial voice in my head says, “Split infinitive, split infinitive, split infinitive.” I read some awkward locution, and the same voice in my head says, “Sure it is a sucky sentence, but he didn’t have much choice unless he was going to split that infinitive.” I am deprived of both the joy of natural language and any real appreciation for accurate grammar. In short, HLR has permanently scarred my relationship with this particular part of the English language. I find myself just trying to avoid adverbs as a result. It’s sad.
I want it to be the way it was before, when I just thought that it was better to say, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” More than that, however, I want to finally, definitively, totally, absolutely, truly, and gleefully repeal the split infinitive rule.