Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 15, 2010

I Told You Not To Heedlessly Split That Infinitive!

Nothing can seem more natural than the construction of today’s title. Yet, in certain corners of the English-speaking world, you would be sorely taken to task for writing it that way, given a failing grade and told to stay for detention and write, “I will not split infinitives” a hundred times on the blackboard (or on your iPad, if your school no longer has blackboards or is a virtual classroom). (Remind me to explain to my younger readers some time what a blackboard is.)

I’ll come to the origin of this prohibition against split infinitives in a few lines. First, a quick review of what an infinitive is, in case you missed that day in English class to attend a special event in the auditorium or perhaps in the parking lot behind Barry’s Olds 442.

Think of the verb, “work.” The infinitive form of the verb is “to work.”  “Work” is the “bare infinitive,” combined with the “marker,” “to.” This infinitive form of English verbs is one of the many tools in the incredibly diverse and well-stocked language toolkit with which we can perform all sorts of powerful transformational language tasks. Commonly, we use the infinitive form to create a nominative or objective construction, as in “To work well is its own reward,” or “He asked no more than to be given a chance to work.”

To “split” the infinitive means to put a word between the marker and the bare infinitive, as I did in today’s title with “heedlessly,” or, in the now-classic and famous example, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

By extension, putting a word between the parts of any verbal construction is considered “splitting.” For example, you might say, “You were always taught,” rather than “You always were taught.” It immediately occurs to you that our daily speech is chock-full of this sort of thing and that almost all of us would use the first example instead of the second, especially when speaking.

NOT, however, if you had worked for my former boss! Here’s where we explore the historic prohibition of split infinitives. Some time back in the 19th Century, some self-appointed number of English language purists decided that splitting infinitives was wrong: egregiously wrong, as in “Thou Shalt Not.” If you want to read an interesting and only moderately technical explanation of this subject, including an examination of the history, Wikipedia has a good entry: CLICK HERE.

This insistence on not splitting infinitives was bogus. There is no such “rule.” There are, in fact, far fewer rules about language than most of us think there are. Language is fluid and its customs and regulations vary as to whether we’re writing or speaking, and to whom and in what circumstances.

However, if you studied English very much at all and you’re of a certain age, you got that “Shalt Not.” This all popped into my mind as I was writing one of last week’s blog entries. I had written a clause something like, “I carefully tried to ….” and I stopped short. My editor-in-residence, usually referred to here as The Counselor, is always pointing out my tendency to use somewhat stiff-sounding constructions like this, when it would be more casual and appropriate to the informal tone of this blog to say, “I tried carefully to ….” The funny thing is, I didn’t write like that until just a few years ago. That’s where the part about my former boss comes in. At the time, I was the publisher of the company’s employee magazine and my boss, who had received an excellent though extremely traditional education, was a hard-core non-split-infinitive guy. Never. No way. It was crazy the way he obsessed over it. A meaningless rule, invented out of the thin air and propagated by textbooks and teachers for no good reason drove my fellow writers and me crazy. I’ve been writing a long time and, although I was aware that in certain formal written communications one might want to avoid the split infinitive, I had NEVER thought of it as a RULE. All of us in his organization who had to write anything had to hew to this rule, whether it was for the magazine or the Web site or press releases or letters from the CEO. Thou Shalt Not! We tried to back one another up, proofreading one another’s work to detect any stray splits. As a result, I completely reprogrammed part of my writing engine. It became natural for me to write, “I don’t want this to upset you entirely” instead of “I don’t want this to entirely upset you.”

Yes, there are many, many practices which we might consider “rules,” and I prize them and the people who use them competently. The “rules” we have, though are different than they were for Shakespeare or even for much more recent writers, and the language I use in this blog is a different thing than you might need to use in another setting. And it’s all subject to change as the language evolves, whether or not some self-appointed experts dream up red herring rules that don’t exist. I think one of the most useful bits of wisdom to keep in mind is that, “Dictionaries are not law books. They are history books,” and pretty much the same thing goes for some of what passes for grammar.

If you want to use a language that has absolute, immutable rules, I recommend Latin or Sanskrit, all of whose speakers and authors have expired. But, since no language can be used for very long without changing, you might find some parts of Latin evolving, if you can get anyone else to speak it with you. You’ll have to invent new words, at least. You could also invent your own language. I have had a chance to speak on the phone with the distinguished Jules Schwartz, who invented a programming language named JOVIAL (“Jules’ Own Version of the International Algorithmic Language”). At one time, Dr. Schwartz worked at the company that now employs me.

If you’re not satisfied with inventing your own language or using a dead one, prepare to adapt. It’s the meaning of being alive, for languages as well as people. And split an infinitive occasionally. Use it to cleverly annoy someone.

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Responses

  1. I think young folks know what blackboard is: it’s the on-line education tool used for presenting lessons and testing, Blackboard, commonly abbreviated as Bb. What confuses me is that if I read “Bb” I start thinking it’s the musical pitch of B-Flat.

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