1871: War Between the US and Britain Averted When the US Agrees to Not Split Infinitives

(USS Kearsarge vs. CSS Alabama by Xanthus Smith)

I’m exaggerating, of course. But proper grammar became a point of dispute in the negotiations between the United States and the United Kingdom that led to the 1871 Treaty of Washington.

American and Britain had a border dispute over the San Juan Islands in the Strait de Juan de Fuca as well as questions about fishing rights and access to the sea. But the most pressing issue was known as the “Alabama claims.” During the American Civil War, British companies built several warships for the Confederacy, such as the C.S.S Alabama. These commerce raiders damaged US shipping during the war. The United States held Britain partially responsible.

The British largely acceded to American demands (much to the frustration of Canadian fishermen). But there was one position from which Britain would not budge: proper grammar.

(Me Fail English t-shirt on sale at the NeatoShop)

At that time, British conventions of English grammar considered splitting an infinitive a serious grammatical error. Thomas R. Lounsbury, a professor of English at Yale University, wrote in 1904 that the British government insisted that the text of the treaty contain no split infinitives:

At last an agreement was reached. It involved certain concessions to the American demands to which, in the opinion of some, assent should never have been given.

There was one point, we are told, upon which the home Government was sternly inflexible. “For it,” says Mr. Lang, “much may by literary persons be forgiven them.” It telegraphed that in the wording of the treaty it would under no circumstances endure the insertion of an adverb between the preposition to (the sign of the infinitive) and the verb. Mr. Lang feels justly the heroic nature of the act. Much might be yielded on questions in dispute which all knew would ultimately involve the expenditure of money, and indeed implied at the time admission of previous wrong-doing; much might be yielded in the case of certain things which the biographer himself seems to regard as points of honor. Still, on these minor matters it was thought advisable to give way. So much the more must our tribute of admiration be paid to the English Government for remaining as immovable as the solid rock when it came face to face with the great question of severing the close tie that binds to infinitive the preposition to. “The purity of the language,” observes Mr. Lang, “they nobly and courageously defended.”

I cannot verify Prof. Lounsbury’s assertion from original sources. But if it is not good history, then it is at least a good story. Upon casually perusing the text of the treaty, I cannot find any split infinitives.

The treaty was duly ratified by Queen Victoria and the United States Senate. This event began the Great Rapprochement—an era of warming relations between the United States and the United Kingdom that was by no means historically inevitable.

In the spirit of that special relationship of shared language, culture, law and history, let both nations commit to not split infinitives in the future.


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