Split infinitives

An infinitive is the form of a verb made by adding to to its stem (e.g. to go or to do).

It is often argued that there should never be anything between the to and the stem. In Latin, the infinitive is a single word.  This has led to the belief that the infinitive in English should be treated as a single unified concept, and that it is bad grammar to separate the two parts.

It is not bad grammar to split an infinitive; there is no grammatical reason not to. It is sometimes impossible to convey your meaning without splitting the infinitive. Sentences quite often read better when the infinitive has been split.

The most famous example of a split infinitive is probably to boldly go (from Star Trek). Would to go boldly or boldly to go have the same emphasis? No. Are they more natural? No.

As with ending a sentence with a preposition, there are circumstances where it would be more appropriate to avoid splitting the infinitive. It might be, for instance, jarring to split it.

You may also find that some publications would rather that you didn’t split infinitives lest you upset people by doing so. For that reason, The Economist’s Style Guide sadly declares that the ban on split infinitives is ‘pointless’ but that you should observe it anyway.

I’m not sure how healthy it is to obey a ‘rule’ that isn’t a rule just to keep your readers from confronting that it isn’t a rule.

If you want to read people agree with me, here are some books you should take a look at:

  • For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection, David Marsh.
  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Jeremy Butterfield (editor).*
  • Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation (Second Edition), John Seely.
  • Oxford Guide to Plain English (Fourth Edition), Martin Cutts.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style (Sixteenth Edition).
  • The Penguin Writer’s Manual, Martin Manser and Stephen Curtis.

* Fowler’s suggests that you should avoid splitting infinitives but also states that it is acceptable and often necessary.

(To make things even more complicated, I recommend Trask’s The Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar for an explanation of why you aren’t actually splitting an infinitive at all.)

Thank you to Lucy aka Blondeusk for suggesting this post.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Jeremy Butterfield (ed.)

This is my latest book recommendation. I consult this book regularly and it rarely lets me down. Respected and authoritative, it is a book with a sensible and measured approach to the English language.

The 7,500 entries are displayed in an A–Z fashion (like a dictionary, as per its name) with clear explanations and examples. It covers grammar, syntax, spelling, word choices and meanings, punctuation, and differences in English usage around the world. Fowler’s is my favourite source for identifying myths and ‘rules’ that are unnecessary and that damage good writing.

I referred to it in my previous post on ending a sentence with a preposition, and I have directed clients to it when discussing preferred forms of words. I even flick through it occasionally just to see what interesting entries I stumble across.

My hardback copy of the latest edition has 928 pages – you probably won’t want to carry it around with you! But it is an excellent publication to add to your collection. And (to my chagrin) it seems to be a lot cheaper to buy now than it was when I bought it.

Ending a sentence with a preposition

Ending a sentence with a preposition is completely fine. Do it. You can cite the following sources to anyone who says you shouldn’t:*

  • For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection, David Marsh
  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Jeremy Butterfield (editor)
  • Oxford A–Z of Grammar & Punctuation, John Seely
  • Oxford Guide to Plain English, Martin Cutts
  • Penguin Writer’s Manual, Martin Manser & Stephen Curtis
  • The Chicago Manual of Style

Sometimes sentences ending in prepositions should be rewritten because they lack impact or read badly, but they are not ‘wrong’. It is only in the most formal of contexts that placing a preposition before its object is a must. In fact, in some situations it is only appropriate for the preposition to come at the end of a clause or sentence (see Fowler’s for more on this).

Don’t ruin your writing trying to obey this ‘rule’. It is not a thing.

* Martin Cutts calls these people ‘fossils’. I couldn’t possibly comment …

The Penguin Guide to Punctuation, R.L. Trask

If you struggle with punctuation, this is the book that you should acquire a copy of.

I have many, many books that I refer to when I am working. The Penguin Guide to Punctuation by R. L. Trask is probably the most accessible one on the subject of punctuation.

The definitions, explanations and examples are simple and easy to understand. The text is well laid out and not an overwhelming block. At 162 pages it isn’t an intimidating tome and you can take it with you to wherever you like to write. It is incredibly thorough (especially the chapter on commas) and even deals with aspects that are not strictly punctuation (such as capitalisation).

I recommend this book because no one should be afraid of punctuation. Sometimes it gets tricky, but most of the time it is fairly straightforward. I know that people worry about their use of commas or what a semicolon is actually for. But once you have the knowledge how, you will be surprised at your ability to wield them effectively in your writing. The guidelines are expertly set out in this book, and they will give you the confidence you need to be able to use punctuation at its best.

Reading

I have a professional ‘About’ page, which you can find here, but I am also a real human being. I am going to express some of my real human self, starting with my relationship with reading.

Although I read as a job, I still retain my love of reading as a whole. In fact, I think my job has only increased my love of words – I have read some things that I never would have done otherwise, and they were fascinating, beautiful and enriching. Proofreading and reading are different techniques, and they are for different purposes, but I enjoy them both.

As a child I was always engrossed in a book (or two, or more). There are boxes and boxes of my books in the attic. I can’t bear to part with them. I am one of those people who can read in whole phrases or sentences at a time, not word by word. I was in the top percentage of every verbal reasoning test I did. Words make sense to me. They are a comfort and a wonderful challenge.

http://mrg.bz/XT9kBmHowever, there was a brief spell during my time at university where I could not bring myself to read for pleasure. I was reading to gain knowledge, to inform my essays, to prepare for exams, and it wore me down. I couldn’t find any joy in words anymore. This was especially true when I was reading about the terrible, horrible things that human beings do to other human beings.

I turned to television and to films for my stories. And while they are enjoyable mediums, they are not as deep and as engrossing as a book. I think that was part of why I embraced them. They didn’t have the same impact that written words did.

It took a while but reading has returned to being a joy for me. I try to read widely, and I am not a ‘book snob’. My current stack of books to read ranges from Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death to The Pilgrim’s Progress.