amastyleinsider

November 16, 2012

Split Infinitives

Filed under: grammar — amastyleinsider @ 11:21 am
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Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive [expletive deleted], I split it so it will stay split….—Raymond Chandler1

The proscription against splitting infinitives—the insertion of one or more words between the particle to and the bare verb2 (eg, to really try, to quickly go)—dates from the early 19th century, when an 1834 magazine article fired perhaps the first shot in the war against the construction.3 Other observers such as Henry Alford (A Plea for the Queen’s English [1864])4 quickly followed suit, and soon a full-blown battle was afoot. The timing of all of this is not surprising, given the affection of the Victorian era for Latin,4 a language in which the infinitive cannot be split because it is a single word.5,6

It should be noted, however, that writers of English have been making free use of the split infinitive since the 14th century3 and that “Noteworthy splitters include John Donne, Daniel Defoe, George Eliot, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, William Wordsworth, and Willa Cather”6—and Raymond Chandler, who once took the admirably firm stance noted above.1 Moreover, the split infinitive has enjoyed renewed support since at least the 1930s, and many authorities now agree with Sterling Leonard, who in 1932 wrote that “The evidence in favor of the judiciously split infinitive is sufficiently clear to make it obvious that teachers who condemn it are wasting their time and that of their pupils.”7 Part of the reason for the support is that because the particle to is not truly part of the infinitive, technically “there’s nothing to split.”4 Furthermore, a split infinitive sounds natural because in English, the best place for an adverb… is right in front of the word it describes.”4

However, some discretion is necessary. Some split infinitives are acceptable because the adverb will not make sense anywhere else in the sentence. Others simply sound better owing to the rise and fall of accented syllables (consider, for example, perhaps the most famous split infinitive of all time—Star Trek’s “To boldly go where no man has gone before….”).2,3,7 Still others are acceptable on the grounds that unsplitting them would result in an awkward construction or, worse, change the sense altogether7—consider, for example, the different meanings of “I want to live simply,” “I simply want to live,” and “I want to simply live.”8

This is not to say that all infinitives can or should be split. Given the lingering wariness toward the construction, avoiding splits is advisable when writing for unfamiliar audiences or for those known to favor the proscription; in such cases, if “a split is easily fixed by putting the adverb at the end of the phrase and the meaning remains the same, then avoiding the split is the best course.”7 Also, writers should carefully assess splits involving the insertion of 2 or more words between the particle and the bare verb to ensure that the intended meaning is not changed or simply obscured by a list of adverbs. Last, writers should also take special care to avoid ambiguity that can arise when only the first infinitive in a series of infinitives contains the particle, because it can be unclear whether the adverb modifies only the first infinitive or all of the infinitives in the series.7

The bottom line:

● Splitting infinitives is not incorrect—but deciding whether to split is a matter of having “a good ear and a keen eye.”7

● Whenever possible, take into account the perceived tastes of the audience—and always take into account the rhythm and sound of the construction, the number of adverbs in use, and any ambiguity that might result from placement of the adverb(s).

● Recasting a sentence to avoid using an infinitive altogether is always an option.

● If it seems that splitting is justifiable, by all means go for it—and know that you are in good company.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Chandler R. Letter to Atlantic Monthly editor Edward Weeks. Dictionary.com website. http://quotes.dictionary.com/would_you_convey_my_compliments_to_the_purist. January 18, 1948. Accessed November 8, 2012.

2. Fogarty M. Quick and Dirty Tips: Split Infinitives. Grammar Girl website. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/split-infinitives.aspx. Accessed October 9, 2012.

3. Nordquist R. Grammar & Composition: Split Infinitive. About.com website. http://grammar.about.com/od/rs/g/splitinfinitive.htm?p=1. Accessed October 9, 2012.

4. O’Conner PT. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Riverhead Books; 2009:210-213.

5. Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007:322.

6. Split Infinitive. thefreedictionary.com website. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/p/Splits%20the%20infinitive. Accessed October 9, 2012.

7. Garner BA. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2000:314-315.

8. Maddox M. What Is a Split Infinitive? DailyWritingTips website. http://www.dailywritingtips.com/what-is-a-split-infinitive/. Accessed November 8, 2012.

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