May 14, 2004

Obligatorily Split Infinitives

J... says that he expects the staff size to more than double within two years. (from Judith Lee; gossiping dinner guest, 4/9/04)

At first this looks like a perfectly ordinary example of "splitting an infinitive", with the modifier more than intervening between the infinitive marker to and the verb double. Thoughtful writers on usage -- see the summary in the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage entry for "split infinitive" -- have long admitted that such examples are at least sometimes acceptable, even in formal writing, though some permit them only when absolutely necessary, as if they were a vice that's regrettably unavoidable on occasion. But (1) doesn't work like standard examples of split infinitives; it's obligatorily split.

Your usual split infinitives alternate with two other structures, a "preposed" structure with the modifier before the to, and a "postposed" structure with the modifier later in the sentence, usually at the end of the infinitival VP:

a. Intervening: I expect to soon see the results.
b. Preposed: I expect soon to see the results.
c. Postposed: I expect to see the results soon.

For example (1), however, only the intervening modifier is acceptable:

a. Intervening: We expect it to more than double.
b. Preposed: *We expect it more than to double.
c. Postposed:*We expect it to double more than.

But we don't have to rely on my personal judgments; we can look at corpora. A Google web search on 4/21/04 yielded about 53,600 hits for "to more than double", most of them of the right sort:

a. ...BenQ plans to more than double its channel this year, its president says...
b. .... GPRC hopes to more than double student housing by September 2005...
c. ... The broadband market is set to explode, with access expected to more than double to 46 million-plus households in the United States by 2008, up...

Using a crude estimate that 20% of the hits will be repeats or irrelevancies, there are still about 40,000 citations.

Contrast this with a search on "more than to double": about 32 hits, only 20 with repeats removed, and under 10 actually relevant examples, among them:

a. ... These products have allowed the company's turnover more than to double: from £66.3m in the year to June 30 1998 to £150m in the 2001 -02 financial year.
b. ... It is rubbing salt into the wound more than to double the charges at such short notice. I appeal to the Minister and to his right hon. and hon. ...
c. ... If the cost of living has more than doubled, it would be necessary more than to double the pension in order to keep the recipients on the same poor scale of ...

I conclude that there are some people who allow preposing of more than, but not many of them, and I suspect that these are people who are conscientiously avoiding the horror of split infinitives, according to a "rule" they learned in school. After all, some textbooks and teachers prohibit split infinitives in any circumstances whatsoever, so that it's no surprise that some of their students would opt for the preposed variant, at least in extremely formal contexts like the administrative writing and parliamentary debates illustrated in (5). I claim, however, that almost all speakers and writers of English show the pattern in (3), not the one in (2).

Parallel to modifier more than are modfier up to and over. First, examples with finite verbs:

a. ... In one example, we found this up to doubled the speed of a small function.
b. ... dry soils. Human influences like over-cultivation and soil erosion may have up to doubled the flux of mineral dust.

a. ... Legal fees Fees depend on the lawyers. Mine charged me 75,000B +15% of the take - we settled for 180,000B, so I just over doubled my money.
b. ... For our regular readers - who have over doubled in numbers in the last year - the new reading room offers a significant improvement in working conditions...

As for infinitival verbs, here there are relatively small numbers of examples with intervening modifiers for to double -- on the order of 50 each for up to (8) and over (9) -- but none at all with preposed modifiers (up to to double and over to double), on the web or in newsgroups.

a. ... Indeed, fuel cells have the potential to up to double the efficiency of cars and power generators while significantly reducing air pollution.
b. ... We are also (again!) trying to get a bill passed that would allow us, on a county by county basis, to up to double the amount we get from each fee.
c. ... Marketscore is a free download accelerator which purports to up to Double your Internet Speed ...

a. ... Over the years, two to be exact, AMD has managed to over double the speed of the Athlon core from 650MHz to 1400MHz!
b. ... She had the skills to over double her membership at Stevenage, and prove that one-to-one communication with potential members is key.
c. ... While a mansion may not be an option there is full planning permission to over double the size of this 3-bedroom bungalow, which has a walkway leading ...

Once again, obligatorily split infinitives.

This is no accident; more than, up to, and over are in fact prepositional modifiers (Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pp. 357, 432f.), and like prepositions in general, must be immediately adjacent to the expression they combine with:

a. Intervening: *We looked at especially Sandy.
b. Preposed: We looked especially at Sandy.
c. Postposed: We looked at Sandy especially.

Although I haven't done corpus explorations of the rest of the prepositional modifiers as used for degree modification, my judgments are that, so long as the semantics is coherent, they can be so used, as in the folowing invented examples:

(11) I expect our profits
... to just about double next year.
... to around double next year.
... to between double and triple within a year.
... to from double to triple within a year.

And they are restricted to intervening position, just like the others:

(12) I expect our profits
... *just about to double next year.
... *around to double next year.
... *between to double and triple within a year.
... *from to double to (to) triple within a year.

The bottom line is that nothing requires infinitival to to be immediately adjacent to the head V of the VP it combines with -- intervening modifiers are fine, so long as they belong to this VP -- but prepositions, whether they are heads or modifiers, must be immediately adjacent to the XP they combine with. And so: obligatorily split infinitives.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 14, 2004 03:39 PM