24 April 2012

On splitting infinitives

From a letter from Raymond Chandler to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly:

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street between.

The editor passed on his comment to the copy-editor (even then, it seems, people confused copy-editors and proofreaders) who replied to Chandler. He subsequently sent her the following:

Lines to a Lady With an Unsplit Infinitive

Miss Margaret Mutch she raised her crutch 
With a wild Bostonian cry.

"Though you went to Yale, your grammar is frail,"
She snarled as she jabbed his eye.

"Though you went to Princeton I never winced on 
Such a horrible relative clause!

Though you went to Harvard no decent larva'd 
Accept your syntactical flaws.

Taught not to drool at a Public School 
(With a capital P and S)

You are drooling still with your shall and will 
You're a very disgusting mess!"

She jabbed his eye with a savage cry.
She laughed at his anguished shrieks.

O'er the Common he fled with a hole in his head. 
To heal it took Weeks and Weeks.

"O dear Miss Mutch, don't raise your crutch 
To splinter my new glass eye!

There ain't no school that can teach a fool 
The whom of the me and the I.

There ain't no grammar that equals a hammer 
To nail down a cut-rate wit.

And the verb 'to be' as employed by me 
Is often and lightly split.

A lot of my style (so-called) is vile 
For I learned to write in a bar.

The marriage of thought to words was wrought 
With many a strong sidecar.

A lot of my stuff is extremely rough, 
For I had no maiden aunts.

O dear Miss Mutch, leave go your clutch 
On Noah Webster's pants!

The grammarian will, when the poet lies still, 
Instruct him in how to sing.

The rules are clean: they are right, I ween, 
But where do they make the thing? 

In the waxy gloam of a Funeral Home 
Where the gray morticians bow?

Is it written best on a palimpsest, 
Or carved on a whaleboat's prow?

Is it neatly joined with needlepoint 
To the chair that was Grandma's pride?

Or smeared in blood on the shattered wood 
Where the angry rebel died?

O dear Miss Mutch, put down your crutch,
and leave us to crack a bottle.

A guy like I weren't meant to die 
On the grave of Aristotle. 

O leave us dance on the dead romance 
Of the small but clear footnote. 

The infinitive with my fresh-honed shiv 
I will split from heel to throat.

Roll on, roll on, thou semicolon, 
ye commas crisp and brown.

The apostrophe will stretch like toffee 
When we nail the full stop down.

Oh, hand in hand with the ampersand 
We'll tread a measure brisk.

We'll stroll all night by the delicate light 
Of a well placed asterisk.

As gay as a lark in the fragrant dark 
We'll hoist and down the tipple.

With laughter light we'll greet the plight 
Of a hanging participle!"

She stared him down with an icy frown. 
His accidence she shivered.

His face was white with sudden fright, 
And his syntax lily-livered.

"O dear Miss Mutch, leave down your crutch!" 
He cried in thoughtless terror.

Short shrift she gave. Above his grave: 
HERE LIES A PRINTER'S ERROR.