Linguistic Teaser

Message from the Infinitive

Revised version of the article, which originally appeared in The Vocabula Review, 28 February 2011

To: You
From: Infinitive
Subject: Splitting me

I can relieve your confusion by telling you a few things about my life. Long ago I was simple—I had only a body and a tail, which usually wagged as –an: singan, findan, tellan, and so on. Those were happy days

Then for reasons I’d rather not know, the English Creatures decided to chop off my tail. They threw it away. All that remained was the body: sing, find, tell, and so on. So you see, I was split long ago. I no longer recognized myself. You would not believe my misery.

But the Creatures repented. “What have we done?” they cried. “We still have the infinitive idea but we no longer have anything to express it with!” One of them suggested, “Let’s ask To if he would come in and prop up what’s left of Infinitive. Between the two of them we’ll be able to express the infinitive idea. We can’t go on like this”. So they brought in To.

I didn’t like To and still don’t, because he’s promiscuous. The Creatures believe he’s friends only with Prepositions but I’ve seen him cavorting with Adverbs, acting like them when he thinks nobody’s looking. “Stop by!” he says. “Come in!” “Sit down!” He can’t fool me.

For his part, he considered me grim. “If I can live happily without a tail”, he boasted, “why can’t you?” Our dislike being mutual, we agreed that a space, a split, would always stand between us. TO SING, TO FIND, TO TELL. This is a good split as far as I’m concerned. It made up for the bad split of long ago. Although I didn’t get my tail back, To was better than nothing.

Yet no sooner had To and I reached an understanding than there arose a faction (English Creatures are never satisfied for long) calling themselves the Pro-Splitters.


The Pro-Splitters argued that Adverbs should be allowed to occupy the space between me and To. Then, they claimed, life would be happier. The Pro-Splitters wanted to say things like: To Happily Sing, To Quickly Find, To Not Tell, and other such merry phrases. To instantly supported the Pro-Splitters because he secretly admired Adverbs. I tolerated them too, but what really made me happy was knowing that Adverbs would create greater distance between me and To. I’d still need him, of course, but from farther away.

However, an opposing faction, the Anti-Splitters, arose.

Tug-of-war between Pro-Splitters and Anti-Splitters

The Anti-Splitters argued that filling the space between me and To would make life harder for Creatures. “Once we allow any Parts of Speech to occupy the space, where will it end?” they cried. “Today it’s Adverbs. Tomorrow, who knows? And before long the Parts of Speech will be ruling us, rather than the other way around. They’re a mutinous bunch”.

The two factions have battled for years, but the Pro-Splitters seem to be gaining ground. They have powerful allies. I, for my part, can only watch and wait and hope for the best. Yet I long for the day when I can stand in a phrase and view a long queue of Adverbs at my side. And where’s To?  Far away, at the end of the queue—I imagine—because he’s so far away, I can’t even see him:

[TO?]… merrily, loudly, in tune, forever, in Italian SING!

Will English Creatures allow my dream, of many Adverbs between me and To, to come true? Probably not. They never cared about me. So I’ll have to spend the rest of my days with To always in view. But I confess, whenever I see even one Adverb standing between me and him, I rejoice.

[Note: This is a revised version of the article, which originally appeared in The Vocabula Review, 28 February 2011. Janet Byron Anderson]


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