English Plus+ News, November 1998

What About Split Infinitives?

Just this month the New York Times (liberal in editorial politics, conservative in writing style) cited the new Oxford Dictionary of Modern American Usage that it is OK to split infinitives. What is a "split infinitive" anyway? And why is that news?

The Split Infinitive "Rule"
Some people were taught that when using an infinitive--the word "to" plus a verb--that they were never to separate the "to" and the verb by inserting another word between them. Doing so was called a "split infinitive." Probably the most famous split infinitive of this generation is the introduction to Star Trek which says "to boldly go." That is a split infinitive, the word "boldly" separating the word "to" from the verb "go."

Many times this construction is awkward, but sometimes it works. Sometimes it may be necessary so that there is no confusion about what word is being modified. Sometimes it may add to the emphasis or rhythm. The Star Trek introduction used a split infinitive for the iambic rhythm.

Grammar rules help us communicate. They make our speech and writing comprehensible. They help us communicate with as many people as possible.

The split infinitive rule does neither. It does not contribute anything to understanding or help avoid ambiguities. The only thing it does is show which people learned about split infinitives in school!

A Brief Overview of the Origins of English Grammar Rules
So where did this rule come from? A little history lesson is in order. In the Middle Ages, English was really a collection of similar sounding local dialects. For the most part it was not even necessary that a person from Devonshire, say, be able to communicate with someone from York. They would never travel that far! There was no uniform spelling or grammar.

Two historical events contributed to a change in that idea. One was the move in the 1300's to translate the Bible into English. Which dialect to use? How should the words be spelled? Wycliffe, the translator of his day, tried to use a vocabulary and style that would be understood by as many English-speaking people as possible. That would become a more significant issue in the 1500's with the Protestant Reformation.

The second event which contributed to a movement to make English more uniform in spelling and grammar was the invention of the printing press. In a single generation, it became possible for writings to be disseminated far more widely and cheaply. More people learned to read. Printers wanted to be able to sell their books and pamphlets to as many people as possible.

Caxton, the first English printer, began work in 1485. He told how that many times he had to make a decision about which word to use, or how to use it, or how to spell it. It was not always easy. He told about one time he could not decide how to say "two eggs." In one part of London, people said "twa eggis." Nearby in another part of the city, they said "zw'eien." (More like the German or Dutch "zwei," with a plural formed like "oxen" or "children" today. The pronunciation of the letter "g" also varied a lot from place to place.) Caxton decided to go with "twa eggis." That may be why today we say "two" instead of "zwo," because printers like Caxton often found themselves making a standard.

Grammar Rules in the Eighteenth Century
In the eighteenth century, with widespread literacy, schools began to teach uniform spelling and grammar. That was also when the first dictionaries began appearing. Dictionaries and grammars would aid in communicating. If written English were standard, English-speaking people would be able to communicate widely (and printers sell more books), regardless of the local pronunciations or sentence structures.

When people began to put together English grammar texts and rule books, they did have a model. Nearly anyone with more than three or four years education knew Latin. Latin was usually taught from a grammatical perspective. Most of the terms we use in grammar today come from Latin--noun, verb, objective, predicate, and so on, even the word grammar itself.

The "Logic" of the Split Infinitive Rule
As much as possible people applied the Latin terminology and logic to English. This was where the "split infinitive" rule was made. In Latin, and most other European languages, the infinitive is one word. For example, the Latin word "ire" (pronounced like e-ray) means "to go." To apply this to English, some teachers and grammarians would say,"Treat 'to go' or any infinitive as a single word." That at first was just to help English speakers learn grammar easier.

However, we can see where the logic led. If we treat "to go" as a single word, then it is "wrong" to insert a modifier between the two parts of the infinitive. By the middle of the 1700's one influential grammar reference was promoting this. Soon others followed. While it never became standardized--even the some of the best writers and speakers were known to consciously break this "rule"--many students learned not to split infinitives.

How Do the Rules Help in Communicating?
There is really no good reason for the rule simply because English is not Latin! English infinitives are made up of two words. That rule was not like the rules about nominative and objective case which help us to communicate more clearly. There was no literary precedent and no just cause. It has been broken by some of the best writers and speakers.

Governments make rules when there is a problem. In 1972, for example, the United States Congress determined that the country had a problem with Water Pollution. Congress passed the Water Pollution Control Act to help solve the problem. From all accounts water pollution has decreased. The rules made the water clearer.

There is normally no problem in clarity, no difficulty in communicating, when infinitives are split. Why make a rule when there is no problem? We all understand Captain Kirk when he says "to boldly go." There is no muddy water. Why burden people with a rule when the water is clear already?

For what it is worth, our pop-up grammar help programs, Grammar Slammer Deluxe and Grammar Slammer, have always listed split infinitives among its "Bogus Rules."

Grammar Slammer users can look it up under the "Split Infinitive" heading. Online see http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000187.htm.
To download a trial copy of Grammar Slammer, go to http://englishplus.com/pub/.

For a couple of New York Times articles on the subject go to:
http://search.nytimes.com/search/daily/bin/fastweb?getdoc+site+site+47245+0+wAAA+%22split%22 and
http://search.nytimes.com/search/daily/bin/fastweb?getdoc+site+site+54022+1+wAAA+%22split%7Einfinitives%22 (free signup required).

Upcoming Issues:
1. Why can't Grammar Checkers correct all my mistakes?
2. 2400--the new perfect score? A look the 1999 revisions of the SAT-I.


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