John Larrysson Column: The Split Infinitive
文章日期:2012年8月1日 boldly split infinitives that no man had split before -

One of the great arguments in English grammar is about the rule that the infinitive, such as to go, should not be split by writing to quickly go. While the alternative, to go quickly, is not wrong this is a case where there are two correct answers. Normally English sentences can be written more than one way.

Why am I asking my students to circle the infinitive in these sentences? I've never circled an infinitive in my life. Does this really help them learn or does it waste their time?

A NET Teacher

Infinitive phrases use to and add the base form of a verb, such as find, run, jump, eat...

I want to find my ball.

I need to run around the sports track.

You need to jump in basketball.

I want to eat ice-cream for dinner.

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Some (English) teachers in the 18th and 19th centuries began to insist on a new rule that the infinitive must not be split. This means that to run quickly will get you marks and to quickly run will lose you marks. This is a fake English rule. It is really a grammar rule from the Latin language adapted to fit English. In Latin infinitives are one word, not two words like they are in English. So when anything is translated into English from Latin the infinitive would not be split. In English history there were long periods when the ruling class spoke a different European language most notably Norman French (1066 to 1485) and English was spoken by the common people. Those other languages often have one-word infinitives. Split infinitives are part of real English.

If the arbitrary rule about split infinitives is accepted, then we should also have a rule against the split nominative. The same logic about other languages that created the first rule would create the second. In the first sentence below, the nominative a boy has been split. The second, more awkward, sentence has been changed to avoid a split nominative.

He is a strong boy.

He is a boy, who is strong.

Once we accept some fake rules and let them confuse us we are vulnerable to others. "The man" is one word in the Latin nominative case, so "the good man" is a split nominative. (Of course, French has two-word nominatives but one-word infinitives. The nominatives may be split, une jolie fille, or not, un autobus rouge. Which may have a lot to do with why an extra rule was never used for this situation.)

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The most famous example of a split infinitive is in the beginning of the Star Trek television shows: to boldly go where no man has gone before. The writers put the descriptive word boldly between (the words of the infinitive) to and go. This quotation from Star Trek became the symbol of disagreement over split infinitives. It was used as a joke in Douglas Adams' book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "In those days men were real men, women were real women, small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before - and thus the Empire was forged."

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There is a point of caution about split infinities. They tend to get awkward if more than one word appears between to and the verb. The easiest split infinitives to read are ones where a single word appears in the split and that word directly describes the verb (an adverb). The first sentence below puts several words between to and go. This makes the sentence harder to read since to and go create meaning together. The second sentence is easier to read, even if neither are wrong.

We want to quickly and quietly in the middle of the night go to the park.

We want to go quickly and quietly to the park in the middle of the night.

The split infinitive does not normally cause any problems understanding English. So most modern grammar guides accept the split infinitive as proper English and a style choice. The rule against the split infinitive is a strange historical relic. A student learning English should not worry about whether a word can be put between to and go. Don't worry about unimportant fake grammar rules, as long as the meaning of your sentence is clear, just keep writing.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.