To Split, Or To Not Split, The Infinitive
Why not? Split infinitives abound in print and broadcast media and in speech. Most memorably, Gene Roddenberry has been telling Trekkies and us more down-to-earth mere fans to boldly go where no man has gone before since Leonard Nimoy first glued on Spock's ears in 1969 (1968?).
But you've doubtless heard that you're not supposed to do that. (Split infinitives, not paste on ears.) It's a well-known law of good usage. Or is it?
In the late eighteenth-century, some grammarian made it up. Until then, users of the English language had struggled to speak and write their mother tongue without the benefit of a formal, codified grammar. From schoolboys to University dons, Englishmen learned Latin and Greek grammar. Before embarking on the Grand Tour, young aristocrats studied French, Italian and even sometimes German grammars. But they had no grammar they could call their own.
Our beaverish grammarian decided to remedy that lack. He reasoned that, as Greek and Latin were honored, venerable, original languages, their grammar would serve for English. That worked pretty well for most points. The Romans had nouns, we had nouns. Their nouns had cases, ours had cases (except, bless us, the ablative. Or was that the dative?) Never mind. The grammarian found Latin grammar a pretty near fit for English.
Till he came across the infinitive. In those languages, the infinitive is one word. Thus, our grammarian reasoned if the ancient languages have one-word infinitives, we should logically treat our two-word infinitive as if it were one word.
Now I was quite seriously along in years and writing and teaching experience before I truly understood the meaning of "infinitive." It is a form of verb. All verbs have one, at least in the European languages, whether Romance or Germanic.
Take the verb, to kiss. To kiss is the infinitive form of kiss. You can only use it as a noun. It can be the subject of a sentence: To kiss made her hot all over. It can be the object: She hadn't thought to kiss would make her . . . etc. Theoretically it can be the object of a preposition, but we won't go there.
But the infinitive itself doesn't act like a verb. You can't locate it in time the way you can just plain kiss. Kissing can happen in time--in the past, present, or future: They kissed, they kiss, they will kiss. The verb kiss can be conditional: They would kiss. It can be past perfect: They had kissed.
All these forms of kiss are finite. That is, they are located in time. The infinitive is not bound by time. It is not finite, but infinite. To kiss might never have happened, or if it did, we don't know when.
So why not split it? There's really no good reason not to. From Old English to Middle English to Modernspeak, our language accommodates splitting naturally despite the purists' caveat. Granted, some splits sound stupid, as in TO NOT SPLIT.
When a split sounds that bad, don't do it.
Very short or very long adverbs do sound awful in the middle of an infinitive. They decided to not kiss. They began to passionately kiss.
The style maven would not say that. On the other hand, if they began to boldly kiss as they had never kissed before, she would have no objection whatsoever.
Contents copyright © 2000-2013 by Judith Stanton. All rights reserved.