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To split or not

A reader writes: “In re the preposition, I keep hoping you will take up the cause of the infinitive, which used to be a sacred whole and is now routinely split.  To rare advantage.”

The writer is June Caldwell Martin, book maven, notable person of letters a contributor to the Arizona Daily Star. And an impressive font of knowledge concerning authors of the Southwest having not only written about them, but crossed their paths as well.

These days the effort to preserve the sanctity of the infinitive ranks with the crusade for world peace through the League of Nations and the movement to establish Esperanto as the mother tongue of the planet. Certainly it has not been for want of trying.

I once attended a conference that featured James J. Kilpatrick, a former editor and opinion purveyor for the Richmond (Va) News-Leader. He fancied himself an authority, and spent much time arguing the inviolate sacrament of the undivided infinitive. He spoke as a true believer as his face grew crimson and he pounded his lectern and pronounced:

“What God hath brought together, let no man tear asunder!”

The other side of the issue contends, as this article from no less an authority than the oxforddictionaries.com:

She used to secretly admire him.

You have to really watch him.

What’s wrong with split infinitives?

Some people believe that split infinitives are grammatically incorrect and should be avoided at all costs. They would rewrite these sentences as:

She used secretly to admire him.

You really have to watch him.

 But there’s no real justification for their objection, which is based on comparisons with the structure of Latin. People have been splitting infinitives for centuries, especially in spoken English, and avoiding a split infinitive can sound clumsy. It can also change the emphasis of what’s being said. The sentence:

You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’]  doesn’t have quite the same meaning as: You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’]

The trouble with splitting infinitives is that when they are split, it is done with adverbs. One should manage adverbs with care because they are like mashed potatoes. If one is sloppy, one’s potatoes turn lumpy, and so it is with prose. A lumpy sentence is wordy. Thus if you want a sentence that says, “It’s important that you watch him,” it is advisable to be rid of “really.” Thus the infinitive remains unsullied, and the sentence reads: “You have to watch him.” And if you want the sentence to say it’s important to watch him closely, why on earth wouldn’t you just say it, as in, “You have to watch him closely.”

I agree with the contention that avoiding split infinitive may sound clumsy. But clumsy prose is not the result of fooling with infinitives, split or pristine. The rewrite from the wise guys at Oxford: She used secretly to admire him is not necessarily the best alternative. It is better in my opinion to cast the “secretly” at the end, thus: She used to admire him secretly. If you have a sort of innate dislike of the adverbial “ly,” which I do because they wimpy laggards and do little work, you can resort to this: She used to admire him in secret. This avoids the adverbial wimp and places the emphasis on the secret stuff because “secret” resides at the end of the sentence, to linger longer in the narrative. The period requires pause, the pause creates a bit of a punch.

The key lies in June’s observation that violation of the split infinitive rule rarely results in silky prose. That is not to say the rule is absolute or that there never are good reasons to split. Like most of life’s little quandaries, it depends.





  1. There once was a writer named Mitt

    Who loved to infintives split.

    He’d pen to not be

    Instead of to be

    To give June Martin a fit.


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