Why Not To Split Infinitives

It is common now to regard the old rule against splitting infinitives as outdated and stuffy. That might be so but there are still some reasons for observing the rule. Here is one example:

Newly declassified documents, obtained by George Washington University’s National Security Archive, appear to for the first time acknowledge the existence of Area 51.

This sentence is hard to read and needlessly complicated. It would be much clearer if it read:

…appear for the first time to aknowledge


…appear to acknowledge for the first time.

Either of these would be preferable to what was published.

There may be times when it is appropriate to split an infinitive. Maybe, “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is one of those. I don’t know but this isn’t one of those times.

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  1. These are great reminders Dr. Clark, so keep it up if you have the time.

    In my experience, many English teachers, and others who deal with more writing based assignments, have been lazy or careless to attempt teach/reinforce good grammar. They have been more concerned with the style or structure for the entire paper, and less with the grammar. I had an English professor for a writing class that had been an L.A. Times journalist; she gave me a confused look when I asked a grammatical question on something, so I just said, “never mind.” And for an exam, I wrote an essay in response to a question she gave and ended being marked down because I was the only one who interpreted the question a certain way. When I went to see her about it, she agreed with me that the class had interpreted her question incorrectly and I was correct, but refused to change my grade because the entire class had understood the question the same way; perhaps she was also embarrassed because her question was not written in such a way to get the response she desired. The students responded the way she wanted, but I had responded the way her written question required.

  2. Yes, there can be times when ‘breaking’ the rules is the right thing to do: ‘improper’ English can be stylish when done well. But in order to do it well it is necessary to understand how to write proper English. You can’t work out which rules to jettison when you don’t know which rules are available, after all!

  3. I was an English major in college and have enjoyed a lifelong love affair with the English language. Everything about it fascinates me – its history, its ability to constantly grow, adapt, and transform itself, its astonishing variety. There’s never been another language quite like it in the history of the world. English even swallowed another language practically whole (medieval French in the 11th-14th centuries) while remaining English every step of the way. No other language is so rich in synonyms. No other language creates new words so easily, and then modifies them so quickly to fit the needs of the moment. Example: Last night, I did some research on “hard” and “soft” paywalls as news publications struggle in the transition from print to online media. Wall – stonewall – firewall – paywall. Is this a great language, or what?

    The most fun I’ve ever had studying the English language is the 36-lecture course from The Great Courses by Dr. Ann Curzan of the University of Michigan, “The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins.” The titles of the lectures are interesting enough; the content is even better.

    Check The Great Courses website regularly. Every course goes on sale several times a year. http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=2140#

    (I love this company, even though Bart Ehrman is their go-to guy for the history of early Christianity. Groan.)

    Dr. Curzan is a linguist at the top of her profession. She’s also one of the best teachers I’ve ever heard. Her comments on prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar changed the way I view language “rules” and are worth the (sale) price of the course. Note to teachers and professors: If your classroom skills even come close to Dr. Curzan’s polish and precision, you’re very, very good.

    Oh, by the way, in my opinion the “rule” against splitting infinitives was pedantic to begin with and is best ignored altogether. Clarity should be goal, as we saw in the quote above (“quotation” according to the rule, but who cares?).

    There are some changes I continue to resist, however. It’s “try to,” not “try and.” People are “hanged,” pictures are “hung.” “Lend” is a verb, “loan” is a noun.

    Yet I have finally given in to using “their” as an indefinite singular possessive pronoun. The generic “his” is dead now, and the “his or her” crowd has lost this battle as well. (Be careful when the gender is specific, though. It’s still considered poor grammar to say, “Every boy brought their notebook to class.”) Common usage creates permanent changes. In language usage, the prescriptive always follows the descriptive. Communication is the only universal rule.

    • I use the generic “he” in my sermons, all the time, on purpose. I’m not throwing in the towel to the lingovandals.

    • Hi Frank,

      I understand what Curzan is doing. My point, however, is that before folk, especially students and younger writers, chuck the rules they should learn them. It’s one thing for C. S. Lewis to ignore a rule, it’s quite another for a 17-year old to do the same.

      E.g., by working not to split infinitives my writing has been more rather than less clear.

      Reactionary? Perhaps.

  4. Bruce,

    Good for you for keeping “he.” I gave in on “their,” but I will never use “gay” to refer to a homosexual. If that sounds like pure defiance, so be it.

  5. An infinitive is a single word that just happens to have a space in it. Splitting an infinitive is like writing “a whole nother reason” or some such phrase. Star Trek is probably to blame for the latitude. If Roddeberry had said “to go boldly” the correct grammar would have become the memorable phrase.

  6. I’m 100% with Frank on the wonderfulness of the English language. What a joy!

    As for split infinitives, you should know the rule before you break it. This applies in so many contexts, including music, about which I know a little (or, enough to be dangerous).

    A simple guide for splitting infinitives? If you’re inserting an adverb? Maybe. If you’re inserting an adverbial phrase? Almost never.

  7. Dr. Clark,

    I agree that we should know the “rules” before we bend them.

    TV writers have become some of the worst offenders when it comes to plain ‘ole bad grammar. My wife graciously puts up with my yelling at the screen when a character says something like, “Last week was really tough for Jim and I.” That’s neither slang nor a regional variant. It’s just an error.

    Dr. Curzan gives ample weight to the sociological implications of “standard” vs. “non-standard” English usage. (These are the current preferred terms, which used to seem relativistic until I clearly
    understood the prescriptive-descriptive dynamic.) She recognizes the importance of being able to talk real good in the workplace and other social contexts. We should know our audience in order to communicate effectively with others. As a Mississippi white man “of a certain age,” I would be a fool ever to use a phrase like “I be going,” although it’s perfectly acceptable to certain groups of speakers. Yet I would never hear “I be going” from my professional colleagues, regardless of their background.

    All of which goes to show that English is an endlessly complex and fascinating language.

  8. Speaking of bad language habits, one that drives me nuts is the constant use of the affirmative “Yeah” instead of the simple “Yes.” The speaker may think he’s being informal (though he’s probably not thinking about it at all), but it often comes across as careless and flippant. It’s not just the baggy pants and reversed-baseball cap crowd that does this, either. As a podcast junkie, I hear “Yeah” regularly from educated Christians, mostly young men but a smattering of older guys, too. Horror of horrors, I’ve heard it from WSCAL faculty members (Dr. Clark excepted, as far as I remember).

    Then again, maybe I’m just being a cranky old man.

  9. Apparently, what we’ve decided to not acknowledge in this discussion is the government’s on-going, massive cover-up of the truth behind Area 51. Now THEY are telling us once again that the sightings weren’t real UFO’s, just U-2 spy planes. Puh-leez. Everyone knows we are not alone, and that we have been visited by aliens. The people who were abducted and probed told us that.

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