English Plus+ News, November 1998
Many times this construction is awkward, but sometimes it works. Sometimes it may be necessary so that there is no confusion about what word is being modified. Sometimes it may add to the emphasis or rhythm. The Star Trek introduction used a split infinitive for the iambic rhythm.
Grammar rules help us communicate. They make our speech and writing comprehensible. They help us communicate with as many people as possible.
The split infinitive rule does neither. It does not contribute anything to understanding or help avoid ambiguities. The only thing it does is show which people learned about split infinitives in school!
Two historical events contributed to a change in that idea. One was the move in the 1300's to translate the Bible into English. Which dialect to use? How should the words be spelled? Wycliffe, the translator of his day, tried to use a vocabulary and style that would be understood by as many English-speaking people as possible. That would become a more significant issue in the 1500's with the Protestant Reformation.
The second event which contributed to a movement to make English more uniform in spelling and grammar was the invention of the printing press. In a single generation, it became possible for writings to be disseminated far more widely and cheaply. More people learned to read. Printers wanted to be able to sell their books and pamphlets to as many people as possible.
Caxton, the first English printer, began work in 1485. He told how that many times he had to make a decision about which word to use, or how to use it, or how to spell it. It was not always easy. He told about one time he could not decide how to say "two eggs." In one part of London, people said "twa eggis." Nearby in another part of the city, they said "zw'eien." (More like the German or Dutch "zwei," with a plural formed like "oxen" or "children" today. The pronunciation of the letter "g" also varied a lot from place to place.) Caxton decided to go with "twa eggis." That may be why today we say "two" instead of "zwo," because printers like Caxton often found themselves making a standard.
When people began to put together English grammar texts and rule books, they did have a model. Nearly anyone with more than three or four years education knew Latin. Latin was usually taught from a grammatical perspective. Most of the terms we use in grammar today come from Latin--noun, verb, objective, predicate, and so on, even the word grammar itself.
However, we can see where the logic led. If we treat "to go" as a single word, then it is "wrong" to insert a modifier between the two parts of the infinitive. By the middle of the 1700's one influential grammar reference was promoting this. Soon others followed. While it never became standardized--even the some of the best writers and speakers were known to consciously break this "rule"--many students learned not to split infinitives.
Governments make rules when there is a problem. In 1972, for example, the United States Congress determined that the country had a problem with Water Pollution. Congress passed the Water Pollution Control Act to help solve the problem. From all accounts water pollution has decreased. The rules made the water clearer.
There is normally no problem in clarity, no difficulty in communicating, when infinitives are split. Why make a rule when there is no problem? We all understand Captain Kirk when he says "to boldly go." There is no muddy water. Why burden people with a rule when the water is clear already?
Grammar Slammer users can look it up under the "Split Infinitive" heading. Online see http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000187.htm.
To download a trial copy of Grammar Slammer, go to http://englishplus.com/pub/.
For a couple of
New York Times articles on the subject go to:
http://search.nytimes.com/search/daily/bin/fastweb?getdoc+site+site+54022+1+wAAA+%22split%7Einfinitives%22 (free signup required).
1. Why can't Grammar Checkers correct all my mistakes?
2. 2400--the new perfect score? A look the 1999 revisions of the SAT-I.
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