An American Editor

September 17, 2012

On Language: The Fallacy of Not Splitting the Infinitive

Filed under: On Language — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
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Rules of grammar are good and important. They are good because they act as a guide; they are important because they provide us a way to communicate with each other so that we understand what each participant to a conversation is trying to convey.

The flipside is that grammar rules are also bad. They allow a “noted and respected” language commentator to “definitively” determine (or should it be “to determine ‘definitively'”?) what is and is not acceptable grammar. To some authors, editors, and grammarians, the rules are rigid and unyielding. Cite the rule and follow it — or else! Alas, the rules are really like clothing — fashionable today, unfashionable tomorrow.

This is such a tale — a tale of the bad side of the “rules” of grammar; the dark side, if you will. This is the tale of splitting the infinitive!

We all know modern English’s most famous split infinitive: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Granted, that is not the entire sentence or paragraph (which was: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”) as spoken by William Shatner at the beginning of virtually all of the original Star Trek television series, yet it is the phrase to which most of us turn when we want to justify splitting infinitives.

We need not rely on that quote to justify splitting infinitives. In fact, it is those who oppose ever splitting infinitives, or who believe it can be done in exceptional circumstances only, such as in the above quote, who have the tougher road to travel.

English has been a language of split infinitives since at least the early 1300s. For hundreds of years, no complaint was heard, not a grammarian rose in opposition, until the mid to late 1800s. Suddenly, English needed to be raised from its common roots to the heights of perceived linguistic nobility. After all, England and English were conquering the world — the sun never set on the British Empire — and what good was it to be a conqueror if one’s language was barbaric. Okay, I admit that I really don’t know that this is the reason, but it is as good a tale as any, because otherwise there really is little reason for the sudden change in what is and is not kosher grammar.

The change did come about, however, as grammarians began to identify English with what they considered the epitome of language: Latin. Latin was a “pure” language, especially compared to English. If there ever was a born bastard, its name is English. Unlike Latin, which was reluctant to adopt and incorporate other languages, English had no pretensions of nobility or pure blood; English was (and is) a working language that will adopt and incorporate words from anywhere. It is malleable. Unlike Latin, which was stiff and which is now dead, English is flexible and living. Like how it is said in Russian? No problem, English will make it its own. We use vodka, for example, as if it was always an English word. English is an aberration; just ask the French Academy of Language (L’Académie française), which strives to preserve a “pure” French language.

The prohibition against splitting infinitives came about in the late 1800s as grammarians increasingly tried to equate English with one of its many forebears — Latin. Grammarians tried to apply Latin’s rules of construction to English, causing consternation for generations of school children. The application of Latin construction rules to a language as unstructured as English was (and is) problematic at best, impossible at worst. But fashion is fashion and if one wants to be king of one’s niche in the world, one must be fashionable.

Consequently, once the rule against splitting infinitives gained some traction, many of the leading grammarians jumped on the bandwagon. One’s reputation as a grammarian was at stake and fashion leads by the nose.

Unfortunately for the grammarians, the mass of English speakers and writers are resilient and reluctant to give up what sounds good — and what conveys the proper message — and so although we often cite the rule against splitting infinitives, we give it the honor it deserves by ignoring it. As Bryan Garner writes (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009, p. 767): “Although few armchair grammarians seem to know it, some split infinitives are regarded as perfectly proper.” I would go a step farther and say that split infinitives are proper unless they might cause a miscommunication.

This is an important symbolic issue. Too many editors and writers are adamant that one never splits an infinitive. (There is also the problem of recognizing when an infinitive is being split, but that is a tale for another day.) These editors and writers are correct — if they are writing in Latin. If they are writing in English, infinitives are more often split than not, and correctly so. English does not adopt the grammar rules of French or German simply because it has incorporated words from those languages in its lexicon. Similarly, it does not — and should not — be hamstrung by construction rules of a dead language, especially in light of how many non-Latin-origin words make up the living, flexible potpourri language we call English.

A good author and a good, professional editor will be guided by the fundamental question of grammar: Does the construction facilitate understanding or misunderstanding? Professional editors need to think of split infinitives in much the same light as they should think about commas: to use Lynne Truss’ example, is it “eats, shoots, and leaves,” or “eats shoots and leaves,” or “eats, shoots and leaves,” or “eats shoots, and leaves”?

We need to boldly go where English has been before and accept split infinitives as the norm.

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