Letter to A.W. Riddle (10 January 1947)
- Subject: Grammar of the English language.
- Publication: Quotes from the letter appeared in Christie's 20th-Century Books and Manuscripts 6 December 2002.
TOLKIEN, John Ronald Reuel (1892-1973). Autograph letter signed and typed letter signed to A.W. Riddle, Merton College, Oxford and n.p., 10 January and 2 October 1947, together 6 pages, 4to, autograph, and 7½ pages, 4to, typed.
'LANGUAGES REMAIN ... THE PROPERTY OF ORDINARY MEN'. Extended disquisitions on the split infinitive and other linguistic questions. Tolkien writes in response to a letter and paper sent to him by his correspondent: he notes that 'The Professor of E. Lang. and Lit. is the target for a good many such slings and arrows as you use', and disassociates himself from any 'concern with "correctness"', before turning his attention to 'this rather difficult point, or this affair of the "split infinitive"'. Tolkien traces the origin and nature of the infinitive in English, as well as associated idioms and usages, and argues that his correspondent, who is strongly in favour of the split infinitive, tends to 'neglect the function of the hearer'; 'I think you overlook the fact that the split infinitive is in fact an innovation, a disturbance of received pattern'. He argues against pedantry in linguistic matters -- 'I hope I have not the air of a prig. You are unfair to Fowler, who though not without a schoolmasterly tone, was no prig' -- and touches on the usage 'It's me', ending with a jeu d'esprit of split infinitives: 'If [this response] helps you to more readily forgive and to more kindly think of ... dilatory professors ... and to with equanimity bear with the pedantries of those who dislike to suddenly have their familiar patterns disturbed ... it will have done more than could be expected from its inadequacy'. The second letter returns to the question, with reference to integrated adverbs (such as 'to overthrow'), and reiterates that 'Languages remain the products and in a sense the property of ordinary men as the instruments of their thought, fancy, and jest', discussing contemporary prejudices against certain pronunciations -- 'Varsity was university slang abbreviation made at the time when univarsity was in Southern England univarsal' -- and the survival of older pronunciations in certain social groups; he ends with an admission that 'my vice is complex patience', and that apart from his intellectual interests 'I also try to be a writer of verse and prose'.