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To split or to not split: grammar, meaning and style

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

Should sense and stylistic effect hold sway over 'correctness'?

In my previous post I discussed the prohibition of the split infinitive, and explained why the rule is not part of ‘English grammar’, but rather an arbitrary point of taste or stylistic convention. Despite this, the fact remains that many readers educated prior to the 1970s will flinch at the sight of a split infinitive in print, particularly if each one is a stark reminder of a rap on the knuckles with a ruler. Fowler’s Modern English Usage tells us that following the appearance of Bernard Levin’s regular column in The Times on 24 October 1991, the paper was compelled to defend him in a special comment two days later. His crime? Merely having reported that the longest-serving prisoner of the Russian gulag ‘was in Vilnius to formally close down the headquarters of the Lithuanian KGB.’ Thirty years on we might laugh at this as a storm in a teacup, but writers understandably want their editors to remove not just grammatical errors, but anything that might (even momentarily) distract the readers they’ve worked so hard to hook. So, should non-prescriptivists just grit their editorial teeth and make a clean sweep of such offending linguistic articles? On the contrary; there are times when a piece of writing will actually be all the better for the inclusion of deliberately split infinitives.


As ever, it’s linguistic guru David Crystal who gives the best explanation of this, in his entertaining myth-buster Who Cares About English Usage? He quotes Lord Macaulay, a respected paragon of linguistic virtue, deliberately tinkering with his own word order when revising an article for publication in 1834, changing ‘in order fully to appreciate’ to ‘in order to fully appreciate’. Without doubt, the latter example has a shade of emphasis lacking in the former, and Crystal goes on to discuss how the ‘useful role’ played by the split infinitive in matters of tone can extend beyond that to the avoidance of ambiguity. The meaning of a sentence can even depend on it, as Fowler’s Modern English Usage illustrates in this comparison:


(a) …in not combining flatly to forbid hostilities…

(b) …in not combining to flatly forbid hostilities…


Is it the combining or the forbidding that is occurring flatly? Example (a) appears to convey something very different from (b), or at the very least it is ambiguous. There is another possible way of ordering the sentence fragment above, which would perhaps clarify the meaning:


(c) …in not combining to forbid flatly hostilities…


This one, however, throws up another problem: awkwardness. In many cases, the split version simply sounds more ‘natural’. Regardless of the different shades of meaning, which of Crystal’s examples below sound to you like they have been written by a native English-speaker?


He was trying to definitely hold the ball.

definitely to hold the ball.

to hold definitely the ball.


I’m guessing definitely not number three. It’s probably worth noting here that our ideas about ‘naturalness’ often stem from speech rather than writing. Crystal suggests that this is exactly why the much-maligned prologue to Star Trek was so effective:


To boldly go has one big thing in its favour. It is following the natural rhythm of English – the te-tum te-tum rhythm which is the mainstay of our poetic tradition. ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day…’ If the scriptwriter had written boldly to go, the two weak syllables would have come together, and this would have sounded jerky. If he had written to go boldly, he would have ended up with two strong syllables together, which sounds ponderous. To boldly go is rhythmically very neat.

Rather than being a grammatical error, Captain Kirk’s split infinitive is a deliberate and very clever stylistic choice which gives his musing the air of heroic oratory. This is of particular relevance to proofreaders of fiction who are constantly called on to weigh up whether the literary effect of the writer’s chosen variant trumps notions of ‘correctness’. The fruits of this kind of sensitivity to the writer’s stylistic concerns can be seen in works such as A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker, whose editors and proofreaders no doubt took a deep breath and just ‘ran with it’. Our literary tradition is all the richer for it. (This is where I try not to mention the horror of my recurring nightmare where the manuscript of Finnegan’s Wake ends up in my in-tray.)


Be that as it may, authorities on usage such as Fowler and even Crystal do still recommend avoiding a split infinitive if it doesn’t result in awkwardness, just in case it is distracting or even offensive to those older readers who remember their school grammar instruction. Obviously, if your reader is hovering over the bin with your CV in hand, it would be wise not to let a split infinitive be the decider. But for those contexts where the possible triggering of grammatical flashbacks is not a prime concern, the advisable approach is to let tone, levels of emphasis, clarity of meaning, naturalness, rhythm and style come into play when deciding whether a split infinitive may be preferred or even absolutely necessary. I suspect that it will only be another twenty years or so before Bishop Lowth will have to find another reason to haunt our dreams, and not before time.

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