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The phrase “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” popularized by the Star Trek series, sparked not just imaginations but also linguistic debate. At the heart of this debate is the split infinitive, a contentious issue for grammarians and writers alike. But what exactly is a split infinitive, and is it truly the cardinal sin some purists make it out to be?
The Anatomy of a Split Infinitive
An infinitive is the base form of a verb, typically preceded by “to” in English, like “to read” or “to write.” A split infinitive occurs when an adverb or adverbial phrase is inserted between “to” and the verb.
“To quickly run”
“To thoroughly understand”
The aversion to split infinitives can be traced back to the 19th century when grammarians, in their pursuit of clarity and order, began comparing English grammar to that of Latin. In Latin, infinitives are single words (like “legere” for “to read”), making them impossible to split. Some grammarians argued that since this structure is unachievable in Latin, it should also be avoided in English.
However, such a comparison is somewhat flawed. English and Latin have distinct linguistic roots, structures, and evolutions. What works for one doesn’t necessarily apply to the other.
The Modern Stance: Context is Key
Fast forward to contemporary English, and split infinitives are not only common but often preferred for clarity or rhythmic reasons.
“She decided to gradually move to a plant-based diet.”
While some might argue for “She decided to move gradually to a plant-based diet,” the original has a clearer emphasis on the gradual transition itself, rather than the act of moving.
One compelling reason for using split infinitives is to convey a specific nuance or emphasis that might otherwise be lost or diminished.
“He aims to more than double his savings this year.”
The placement of “more than” between “to” and “double” accentuates the ambitious nature of the goal.
Many esteemed writers, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Hemingway, have used split infinitives in their works. Their widespread use in literature, journalism, and media suggests a natural evolution of the English language where meaning and emphasis often trump archaic rules.
Guiding Principles for Using Split Infinitives
If you’re in a quandary about split infinitives, consider these guiding principles:
- Prioritize Clarity: If a split infinitive clarifies your message, it’s a worthy choice.
- Rhythmic Flow: Split infinitives can enhance the rhythm or cadence of a sentence, making it more engaging or memorable.
- Respect the Context: In formal writing or in contexts that adhere to traditional grammar, you might choose to avoid split infinitives.
- Audience Awareness: Consider the preferences and expectations of your readers. For some audiences, traditional structures are valued, while others appreciate flexibility.
- Embrace Evolution: Language is ever-evolving. Today’s deviations can become tomorrow’s norms.
The split infinitive debate underscores the dynamic nature of language and the ongoing tension between prescriptive rules and descriptive realities. While it’s essential to be aware of traditional guidelines, it’s equally vital to recognize the evolving nature of English. In the vast linguistic universe, there’s certainly room “to boldly go” where our expressive needs take us.
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