A Word, Please
Time travel always seemed to me a silly idea — at least as it’s portrayed in movies and on TV. Sure, it’s fun to ponder whether a guy can be his own grandpa. But time-travel movies always fall apart around the time middle-aged Bruce Willis is running through an airport trying to avoid eye contact with 8-year-old Bruce Willis. So I never bought any of it.
What a fool I’ve been. Turns out time travel is real, as evidenced by a recent news story that proves we have somehow been catapulted back into the 1950s.
“Teachers told to stop stressing about split infinitives, as study finds they are now part of everyday language,” the headline in the British paper The Telegraph reads.
That noise you hear is the collective snap of girdles being loosened across the English-speaking world.
As the article goes on to explain, a new study has shown that prohibitions on split infinitives “are so widely flouted, they have effectively become part of modern spoken English.”
This is big news for everyone who likes Ike. In the 1950s and ’60s, English teachers were obsessive about cracking down on certain alleged no-nos including sentence-ending prepositions, the use of “so” at the beginning of a sentence, and, worst of all, the dreaded split-infinitive.
Here’s the idea: “to go” is a verb in its infinitive form. Think of this as a verb’s most fundamental state — the very idea of the verb itself. If you put something between the “to” and the “go” — for example, an adverb like “boldly” — people say you’ve committed an atrocity against the language. You’ve split the infinitive.
Countless students over the years, especially in the middle of the last century, got in trouble splitting infinitives. They were robbed.
There has never been a rule against splitting infinitives. Many experts believe the idea came from a misapplication of Latin, in which you literally can’t split an infinitive because the infinitive is just one word. Think of “aller” in French or “ir” in Spanish. Both are infinitives that mean “to go.” Good luck squeezing an adverb in there. English is structured differently, using “to” to introduce an infinitive. So sometimes an adverb or other word lands in the middle. But unlike in Latin, Spanish and French, that’s fine.
The “rules” against splits were debunked decades ago. Even the revered Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” allows them. “Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does,” Strunk and White advised, offering the example “I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.”
I’m pretty sure stovewood references predate the era of housewives vacuuming in high heels. So the idea that language standards have fallen victim to the modern age doesn’t hold water.
The second problem with the split-infinitive prohibition is even more fundamental. According to most academic language analyses, the particle “to” isn’t part of the infinitive anyway. It just introduces it. So when you put a word between “to” and “go” you’re not splitting the infinitive because the infinitive consists only of the word “go.”
The study focused on spoken English instead of written, which is an odd choice. Spoken language is, of course, more casual. Written language is what pedants care most about. Another interesting detail: The study showed that split infinitives have become more common in the last few decades, with no explanation as to why speakers in the 1970s and ’80s used them less often that people in the ’90s.
If you’re tempted to put an adverb or other word between “to” and an infinitive, it can’t hurt to try moving it: “to go boldly.” If that doesn’t sound as good to you, split away. But really, there’s no need. The only people who would care are too busy waxing their Studebakers anyway.
June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.