Friday, January 24, 2014

Post 2576 - The Split Infinitive

Hey, my 4.7. Welcome to the weekend!

If you haven't read the Mike Cranston interview yet, then what are you waiting for?

This week's grammar lesson, which you've all been clamouring for, is about something called a split infinitive, and why one shouldn't use them.

First of all, in most languages, the infinitive of any verb is the equivalent of "to" plus the verb in question. In English, the infinitive of the verb would be, for example, "to go", or "to think", or "to fart".

A split infinitive is simply a situation in which a word or phrase comes between the "to" and the verb in question. Those of you who follow Star Trek would know all about the motto of Star Fleet, part of which is "to boldly go where no man has gone before".  In this case, "boldly" is what splits the infinitive.

Why is this bad?

I'm not sure it is, in the above example. Somehow, "to go boldly" or "boldly to go" seems awkward to me, as if the writer or speaker were bending over backward to avoid splitting the infinitive. Maybe it's because the phrase "to boldly go" is so entrenched in our culture that any variation of it sounds weird.

So, let's try this as an example. Suppose you didn't want someone to do something. Would you be more inclined to say, "You must promise to never to do that", or, "You must promise never to do that", or, "You must never promise to do that"?   Well, you would not say the last one because it changes the meaning of the sentence, doesn't it? The second one sounds awkward, and also has a hint of pedanticism. The first one, "to never do", seems more natural, especially in a conversation. Your mileage may vary, of course.

I think split infinitives are bad when you have a long phrase between the "to" and the verb. Anybody who says, or writes, "To boldly, mournfully, with great intention, yet with a reluctance, go", ought to be taken behind the woodshed and spanked hard. (I'll supply the switch.) The poor reader, or listener, is sitting there, or reading there, waiting for a damn verb to come along so that he knows what the sentence is about. Take pity on him, folks.

(The German language is like that by times, by the way. The main past tense will usually consist of the properly-conjugated "have" plus whatever other things the reader wants to write or the speaker wants to say, and ends with the main verb being the very last word in the sentence. They're used to that, but I have always wondered how many folks who studied German grew impatient waiting for the verb to show up.)

To sum things up, in my opinion, split infinitives are less a grammatical error and more an unprofessional way to treat your audience, especially when you have long phrases between the "to" and the actual verb. One word between the "to" and the verb may actually make the sentence sound better, but anything more than that should be avoided.

Any questions?

See you tomorrow, my lovelies.


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