One of the most common questions I’m asked as a grammar teacher and editor is whether it is wrong to split an infinitive.

The blissfully short answer is no. It’s fine.

Modern authorities agree that splitting an infinitive is grammatical. In 1993, no less august an authority than the Chicago Manual of Style removed split infinitives from its list of constructions to be avoided. Henry Fowler’s Modern English Usage refers to the warning against split infinitives as a superstition.

This information may or may not have delighted TV producer Gene Roddenberry, who’s seminal series Star Trek opens with a voiceover intoning perhaps the most well-known split infinitive in modern English usage: “To boldly go where no man . . .” Inserting an adverb such as “boldly” between “to” and “go” is perfectly allowable in standard edited American English.

Whew. Next question! But wait: Let’s boldly go further in this new grammar blog and look at why such rules exist and flourish and where they came from. (Or should that be “from whence they came”? That’s for another post; stay tuned.)

Why does this so-called rule against split infinitives exist? The prohibition against splitting infinitives is decried by contemporary commentators as a shibboleth propagated by 19th-century grammarians intent on forcing their understanding of English into the straitjacket of Latin grammar. Because infinitives in Latin are one-word units, they cannot be split. Thus, neither should English infinitives be split, argued these earnest, Latin-steeped scholars. Such is not the case. English verbs are formed very differently from Latin verbs; syntactic rules applying to one language need not apply to others.

But to boldly continue, how did this unduly adhered to rule against split infinitives become so widespread? Clues may be found in the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar and the immense popularity of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style as a grammar authority.

Descriptive grammar is not permissive grammar. It merely describes syntactical structures that are understood as grammatical by native speakers and writers of a language. Prescriptive grammar prescribes rules to be observed at certain levels of usage and discourse. “Articles precede nouns” is descriptive; “Avoid the passive voice,” “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunctiion,” and “Don’t split an infinitive” are prescriptive.

Prescriptive rules are the source of most of our anxiety about grammar. There’s nothing wrong with them unless one is a sort of anarchist who hates rules in general or a compulsive observer driven mad by them. But prescriptive rules do set up judgments about correctness. Such judgment is the wellspring of the wildly popular Facebook group “I judge you when you use poor grammar” and its offshoots, including “I judge you when you use good grammar.” And prescriptive grammar is the also the wellspring of most of the rules in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, now celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. That is, if a book could celebrate, of course, which it cannot. But publishers certainly can, and considering the sales and popularity of Strunk and White over the past five decades, its publisher has good reason to celebrate. Grammarians might not.

For better or worse, Elements of Style is among the most well known books on grammar and usage in the United States. Its popularity extends from high school to college writing courses, but not very far among grammar scholars. As a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education [http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i32/32b01501.htm] points out, the authors’ understanding of syntax was not particularly sophisticated and often incorrect.

Among the prescriptions in Elements of Style, not all of which are useless or wrong, of course, is “avoid split infinitives.” This is very possibly the source of much of the modern angst over the subject. But even this book does not label them ungrammatical; it merely notes that they should be avoided, as should the passive voice. Neither split infinitives nor the passive voice is ungrammatical. But it’s helpful, as we write and comment on writing and grammar, to know what some people consider to be rules -- and the source of those rules. That kind of knowledge can help us decide whether and when to observe them or not.

Eric Gill, another great stylist (albeit of type and font rather than grammar; he is the creator of Gill Sans), noted in a recent interview [http://www.myfonts.com/newsletters/cc/20090401.html): “A man who knows his road can occasionally jump off it, whereas a man who does not know his road can only be on it by accident. So a good clear training . . . will enable a man to indulge more efficiently in fancy and impudence.”

So let’s attempt to know our road in this new grammar blog. And watch out, we may indulge in some fancy and impudence as well!
Comments
by Phil_K on ‎04-15-2009 11:19 AM
Great post, Ellen -- I think you've provided an informative and lucid analysis of this venerable topic.  It's worth noting that Strunk & White themselves seem to wisely descend (note split infinitive) from the prescriptive summit in their concluding "Notes on Style" section: "The split infinitive is another trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook. Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does. 'I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.' The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear, the violation [I guess they just can't let that go] is harmless and scarcely perceptible. Put the other way, the sentence becomes stiff, needlessly formal. A matter of ear."  

Now, there's an excellent formula for longevity (and prosperity): be flexible and split your own wood.

by twi-ny on ‎04-15-2009 11:39 AM

splitting infinitives? what next, leaving prepositions at the end of sentences? using the serial comma that mrs. stern in eleventh grade told us always to avoid?

 

this looks like it will be a fun, fascinating, and hugely necessary blog.

 

Congrats!

 

by Blogger Michelle_Buonfiglio on ‎04-15-2009 12:42 PM

Well done, Ellen!  Here's to 'fancy and impudence!'  Um, as long as we keep it all vigorous and concise. 

 

Looking forward to more of your musings. :smileyhappy:

by Blogger L_Monty on ‎04-16-2009 04:44 PM

Ellen_Scordato wrote:
In 1993, no less august an authority than the Chicago Manual of Style removed split infinitives from its list of constructions to be avoided. Henry Fowler’s Modern English Usage refers to the warning against split infinitives as a superstition.

This information may or may not have delighted TV producer Gene Roddenberry

Most likely not. He was dead at the time.


Such judgment is the wellspring of the wildly popular Facebook group “I judge you when you use poor grammar”

I am a member of this group. That said, I'm also a member of two other Facebook groups whose names here would be rendered as just a few articles, maybe a stray noun and the word *bleep* over and over again. So, really, I don't know that my membership in anything is a good indicator of anything. Except, perhaps, tastelessness.
by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎04-21-2009 05:10 PM

@L_Monty

Right, Mr. Roddenberry died in 1991. My perhaps too hidden point was that there is no way to tell whether or not he would have been delighted, since he was dead. I imagine he wouldn't have cared at all. However, this is not the last allusion to Star Trek and grammar you'll be seeing. Stay tuned!

by on ‎04-21-2009 06:31 PM

Does anyone know of a good fiction editor who could 'un-split' my infinitives into readable copy?  It's infinitely impossible to think about this!  Grammar, as much as I like to read and speak the good stuff, writing it was never my forte.  Is it right one day, and wrong the next?....the English language has given me fits all of my life.  There is always the exceptions to these rules, yeee gads!  Just when you learn them, they're broken! 

 

And, another thing!  If a letter is silent,  it has no use to the word, most often than not.  I think we should revamp the whole English language, myself!  Right this very minute!

 

 

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