Now that you have freed prepositions to bravely be sentence endings, you might clarify Miss Thistlebottom’s split infinitive rule. — Pam Rider, East Village, San Diego
Joining the preposition rule in the rogues’ gallery of usage enormities is the split infinitive. A split infinitive (“to better understand,” “to always disagree”) occurs when an adverb or adverbial construction is placed between to and a verb. In a famous “New Yorker” cartoon, we see Captain Bligh sailing away from the Bounty in a rowboat and shouting, “So, Mr. Christian! You propose to unceremoniously cast me adrift?” The caption beneath the drawing reads: “The crew can no longer tolerate Captain Bligh’s ruthless splitting of infinitives.”
When infinitives are cleft, some schoolmarms, regardless of gender or actual profession, become exercised. Once again we confront the triumph of mandarin decree over reality, of mummified code over usage that actually inhales and exhales — another passionate effort by absolutists to protect the language from the very people who speak it.
No reputable authority on usage bans the split infinitive. Major writers — Phillip Sidney, John Donne, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Coleridge, Emily Bronte, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hardy, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry James and Willa Cather (to name a dozen out of thousands) — have been blithely splitting infinitives ever since the early 14th century. Thus, when I counsel readers to relax about splitting infinitives, I am not, to slightly paraphrase “Star Trek,” telling them to boldly go where no one has gone before. Several studies of modern writing reveal that a majority of newspaper and magazine editors would accept a sentence using the words “to instantly trace” and that the infinitive is severed in 19.8 percent of all instances where an adverb appears.
The prohibition of that practice was created in 1762 out of whole cloth by one Robert Lowth, an Anglican bishop and self-appointed grammarian. Lowth’s anti-infinitive-splitting injunction is founded on models in the classical tongues. But English is a Germanic tongue, so the fact that Greek, Latin and all the succeeding romance languages feature single-word infinitives, such as videre and hablar, that are unsplittable is irrelevant to English syntax.
Why is the alleged syntactical sin of splitting infinitives committed with such frequency? Primarily because in modern English adjectives and adverbs are usually placed directly before the words they modify, as in “She successfully completed the course.” The same people who thunder against adverbs plunked down in the middle of infinitives remain strangely silent about other split expressions: “She boasted of successfully completing the course” (split prepositional phrase) and “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” (infinitive split by helping verb). We hear no objections to such sentences because in English it is perfectly natural to place adverbial modifiers before verbs, including infinitive verbs.
I do not advocate that you go about splitting infinitives promiscuously and artlessly. But there is no point in mangling a sentence just to avoid a split infinitive. Good writers occasionally employ the construction to gain emphasis, to attain the most natural and effective word order and to avoid ambiguity. How would you gracefully rewrite Pam Ryder’s split infinitive, “to bravely be sentence endings,” or the split infinitives I’ve strewn about this column? And what about the sundered infinitive that pops up on your computer screen whenever you jettison a file: “Are you sure that you want to permanently delete the selected file(s)?” To my ear, you wouldn’t want to revise any of these cleft constructions. They are already clear and readable.
It is indeed acceptable practice to sometimes split an infinitive. If infinitive splitting makes available just the shade of meaning you desire or if avoiding the separation creates a confusing ambiguity or patent artificiality, you are entitled to happily go ahead and split!
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