To Split or Not to Split: That Is the Question

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Category: Legal Writing, Public
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HamletOne of my former students, Sean Samis, sent me this blog about split infinitives. The infinitive version of a verb is “to __” (to run, to speak, to write, etc.). To split the infinitive refers to placing an adverb between the “to” and the rest of the verb. The example often given is from Star Trek: “to boldly go . . .” Boldly is the adverb splitting the infinitive “to go.”

The article recounts a story about diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Great Britain that led to the Treaty of 1871. As the story goes, the British conceded certain points to the U.S. in the treaty, but would not allow the language of the treaty to contain any split infinitives. According to Yale Professor Thomas Lounsbury, as quoted in the blog, the British sent a telegraph that the treaty’s wording “’would under no circumstances endure the insertion of an adverb between the preposition to (the sign of the infinitive) and the verb.’” Professor Lounsbury was recalling the treaty in 1904.

But today is 2014, 110 years later. What do grammarians think of splitting the infinitive now? Before we attempt to answer that question, let’s go back even further in time to the Elizabethan age and Shakespeare. Hamlet in his soliloquy is mindful of not splitting the infinitive in the famous line, “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” In fact, infinitive verb forms punctuate the entire passage, as a few lines later he says,

To die, to sleep;
To sleep erchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

And,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

My own college professors were apt to note the importance of not splitting the infinitive, such that my habit is to avoid the split. In doing so, I have come to notice the placement of adverbs when I use them in sentences. Some authorities suggest avoiding most adverbs as unnecessary. That advice is good because eliminating adverbs places more emphasis on the verb. But, if I choose to use an adverb, thinking about whether to place it before the verb or after helps me to consider more carefully the point I’m making.

When an adverb splits an infinitive, the adverb gets buried a bit. Consider the following: Boldly to go . . . to boldly go . . . to go boldly . . .

In the first example, placing boldly at the front puts emphasis on the adverb. In the third example, the emphasis is on the word go. In the middle example, boldly gets lost when splitting to and go.

Another consideration is cadence and rhythm in the sentence. If you change the way you stress the words in the “to boldly go” examples, you can affect the natural emphasis of the words based on their position in a sentence. The rest of the words in the sentence may also affect the way the adverb’s placement reads in the sentence. Thinking back to Hamlet’s soliloquy, Shakespeare started the lines quoted above with the infinitive. “To” takes special strength in the beginning of the lines. (You can, by the way, hear Hamlet’s soliloquy performed at Marquette in April.)

So, what do the modern writing texts say about split infinitives?  Professors Anne Enquist and Laurel Oates, in Just Writing, call the rule against splitting an infinitive a myth.  They note that the rule against splitting the infinitive comes from the attempt by English grammarians to “conform [English] to Latin grammar.”

This all seems terribly silly until you remember that at the time English was considered an inferior, upstart, unruly language; and Latin was considered a superior, well-designed, systematic language.  Moreover, devising a grammar that actually described the way English was used was unheard of at the time.  The purpose of grammar, it was thought, was to bring order to a langauge raging out of control. (22)

Let’s remember that Shakespeare studied Latin in grammar school.

Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty also calls the rule against splitting the infinitive a myth to be dispelled.  She says “[i]t’s fine to split infinitives, and sometimes, I split them when I don’t have to just to maliciously make a point.”  (Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, 55)  Finally, my favorite grammar book, The Gregg Reference Manual, allows a writer to split the infinitive, unless “it produces awkward construction and the adverb functions more effectively in another location.”  (279)  So, in 2014, you may choose to split or not split–it’s your call.

 

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3 Responses to “To Split or Not to Split: That Is the Question”

  1. J Gordon Hylton Says:

    Interesting post. While I generally support the rule against split infinitives, it is hard to really know if one should actually point out the error to a student who violates the rule.

  2. Tom Kamenick Says:

    I think writing professors should tell students, “There is no rule against split infinitives. However, enough people think there is that there’s a decent chance at some point somebody will be critical of your writing because of it. Choose carefully.”

  3. Melissa Greipp Says:

    I like Tom’s suggestion.

    I attended the excellent Marquette production of Hamlet a couple of weeks ago. After the performance, I read that Hamlet is the most widely performed play in the world. It was the fourth most popular play during Shakespeare’s time. In its full form, the play runs about four hours.

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