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I've been watching Generative Syntax from the University of Edinburgh on youtube and in chapter 1.1 while describing prescriptivism Prof. Caroline Heycock talks about Splitting infinitives (and the proscription of it by many prescriptivists).

She gives,

"He decided to quickly leave the room."

as an example of a split infinitive construction, which she then proceeds to "fix" by changing it to

"He decided quickly to leave the room."

Now I've been thinking about it for a while and to me that strongly sounds as a changed meaning. While I understand the first sentence to quite unambiguously mean that the "leaving of the room" was quick. The second "fixed" sentence to me sounds very much as though "his decision" was quick rather then the manner in which he left the room. I can just persuade myself that the second form should be read sort of archaically so as to apply the quickly to the speed of leaving rather then of the decision but it doesn't sound right.

My question is, can this be fixed without radically altering the sentence?

My feeling is that

"He quickly decided to leave the room."

Unambiguously qualifies the decision as quick, but the last version I can come up with

"He decided to leave the room quickly."

even though here I tend to parse the "quickly" as modifying the speed of exit still sounds slightly stilted and still not as unambiguous as the version with the split infinitive.

  • Not sure this works for what you're trying to do, but it may be easier to reword the sentence... though most normal people don't understand the concept of the split infinitive and would have no issue with the original sentence at all... If you really want to avoid the split infinitive, this version leaves no ambiguity: "He decided to leave the room at a quick pace.". – Catija Jul 23 '15 at 7:07
  • 'To boldly go' would also be reworded as 'to go boldly', not 'boldly to go'. Your last version works. – Spork Jul 23 '15 at 8:20
  • @Spork Actually, Boldly to go where no man has gone before has a far more portentous, Churchillian and poetic quality than any alternative. Roddenberry should have used it. – Andrew Leach Jul 23 '15 at 8:54
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    The change in meaning is in-your-face-obvious. I don't quite understand why anyone would need to first "have been thinking about it for a while", or why a professor would bring it up in the first place. It can't even be brought up as an example of a hilariously bad fix, because it's so hilariously bad not even the worst prescriptivist would suggest it. It is not only not right, it is not even wrong. The two sentences are not saying remotely the same thing. – RegDwigнt Jul 23 '15 at 9:24
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    @RegDwigнt Well thank you for the thoughtful and constructive comment, beautifully sourced and documented. While the way such a sentence ("... quickly to leave ...", when written, would be interpreted would be with the decision being quick, I'm pretty sure there is a reasonable interpretation with quickly modifying the leaving. In spoken form this can be indicated with a pause in front of quickly. The resulting sentence is quite cumbersome, but I'm pretty sure it's not wrong. – DRF Jul 23 '15 at 11:01
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In the example you chose it becomes difficult to segregate a quick decision from the act of leaving the room. This is because the thought process and the action are closely related in time and speed. It is difficult to imagine someone making a quick decision to do something slowly, or vice versa. So the two inevitably become conflated. So why don't we think of another example.

How about She slowly decided to speak to the child who had witnessed the crime.

If we say it like that, it means she made a slow and perhaps thoughtful decision that her best course of action was to go and speak to the child.

And: She decided to speak slowly to the child who had witnessed the crime means that she made a decision to be slow and perhaps gentle in her approach to the child.

So, if we now say She decided slowly to speak to the child... it seems to mean the decision was the slow thing, not the speaking.

That suggests to me that in your example - if you want to get across the message that it was the leaving that was quick, rather than the deciding, you need to say:

He decided to leave the room quickly or conceivably He decided to leave quickly the room. The latter sounds a bit odd, but is more familiar if you say He decided to leave quickly the people with whom he had become associated

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"Quickly" is an adverb and as such is modifying either "leave" or "decided." Some adverbs can float around in a sentence and the meaning will stay intact, others need to stay rooted near the verbs they are modifying. The last example is bad writing because the adverb is far away from either verb and thus creates an ambiguity. Maybe this is solved by putting the sentence back into its original context.

Your example is interesting because it shows just how far meaning can be stretched or changed and yet have the sentence still be grammatically correct.

If memory serves me, the no split infinitive "rule" was made up by a grammar teacher who thought that English should be like Latin, and in Latin infinitives are not split. I don't see why we need to "fix" English by making it more like any other language, even if English has a lot of words or structure from that language. My two cents worth.

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Firstly, many people, including myself, think it is fine to sometimes split infinitives.

I agree, though, that the sentence did change there. The latter choice (to leave the room quickly) matches the original meaning, but I would agree that it loses a degree of the impact of the adverb by being left to the end of the sentence.

Personally, I would stick with the split infinitive. I could never stand 'to go boldly'.

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I may be wrong, but I think that the hidden point to the example might be that people accidentally change the meaning of the sentence when they try to "fix" split infinitives. Prof Nikolas Gisborne, from the same department, made the point when he showed how someone at the Guardian, by changing the headline "How to not raise a rapist" to "How not to raise a rapist", accidentally implied that there is a good way and a bad way to raise a rapist (see https://youtu.be/myvD96EQx9s?t=10m40s).

Note that the next example of applying a prescriptive rule is also a very awkward sentence: "To which student did you talk?"

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