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Category Archives: Usage

My thoughts and comments on how we use words – the building blocks of the English language.

I Want To Recklessly Split Infinitives

I Want To Recklessly Split Infinitives

OK, maybe not recklessly, I just get a kick out of twisting the noses of the Grammar Nazis out there. Yes, I’ve ranted about the split infinitive before; now I’m doing it again. And I’m doing it because it bugs me how people say that it is now OK to break the rule without explaining why there was a rule in the first place.

First, Some Definitions

Pompous Victorian man saying, "Thou shalt not split the infinitive!"
An early English grammar snob?

If you go back to elementary or junior high grammar classes (that I don’t know how I ever passed) you might recall that an infinitive is the root form of a verb. The most common being “to be.” We rarely use the root form of a verb in conversation, so it is no surprise if you’ve forgotten that its proper name is infinitive.

(By the way, how you know I’m about clear communication rather than grammatical communication is that I wonder how I was let through elementary and junior high grammar. But, I digress.)

Splitting an infinitive is the simple act of putting another word between the “to” and the verb. The most quotable example being Star Trek’s “… to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Truth be told, splitting an infinitive is often awkward and confusing, so it doesn’t happen often. However, there are times when the verb just needs that extra boost. Don’t just go, boldly go!

Second, Language

The English language is, to put it nicely, weird. This isn’t the time nor place to try to cover all of the language’s oddities – and, I would surely miss several … dozen.

For this argument, the oddity of English is that the infinitive is two words. While I cannot speak for every language, most of the languages that English borrows from have single word infinitives. Example, “to be” is etre in French; sein in German; and esse in Latin.

When you split an infinitive in English, you separate two words that are normally next to each other. You are not damaging individual words. To split an infinitive in French, German, or Latin you would have to damage a word! And since that just makes no sense, let’s sum up like this: in many languages it is physically impossible to split an infinitive.

Third, Why Latin?

Why bring up a language that not even the Pope uses in daily conversation? Because for many, Latin is the law of the land when it comes to language.

My limited research tells me that the rule about not splitting infinitives has a murky history – meaning the origins are debatable. (Which could explain why the “experts” don’t go into it when explaining why it’s now OK to split an infinitive.)

One theory is that when English started to replace Latin in the lofty halls of scholarship (some time in the 1800s), there needed to be formal rules of grammar. So, rather than create new rules based on the actual language, the laws of Latin were adopted.

I like that argument because grammar snobs are grammar snobs. The transition to English was probably painful and clinging to the familiar rules of Latin might have eased things a bit.

I don’t like that argument because I doubt there was a rule in Latin grammar about splitting infinitives. Why make a rule banning something that was physically impossible?

Fourth, the Other Argument

In Old English, many infinitives were single words – so splitting them wasn’t an option. As the language evolved, single-word infinitives eventually died away. (I don’t know why.)

The ability to split an infinitive did not mean that people were doing it. It seems to have had periods of popularity. In the mid-1800s, splitting infinitives became popular again and the grammar snobs threw a fit. And, since said grammar snobs were in positions of power, they could formalize the rules they wanted.

This is an argument I can get behind because, well, grammar snobs are grammar snobs.

Fifth, and Finally

The long and the short of it is this: because it is physically possible to split an infinitive go ahead and do it, just be sure to make sense.

Great grammar includes the ability to boldly split infinitives

I’d like to thank June Casagrande, author of Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, for reaffirming my opinion of grammar snobs. I find her writing fun and her knowledge of grammar impressive.

-Lorrie Nicoles

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