Editing Tip #104 – The Split Infinitive (Not What You Thought!)

How picky should you be about certain “Grammar Rules?” What if I told you there was never a rule that told writers, “Splitting infinitives is wrong?”

If you don’t believe me, check out Grammar Girl’s site for the full explanation… it’s more than a little enlightening πŸ˜‰

Some of you might be wondering what a split infinitive is…

It’s when you take the infinitive of a verb [to _______] and put something in the middle.

For Example:

To run.

vs.

To quickly run.

vs.

To run quickly.

or

Quickly to run.

None of these versions is wrong but those that don’t have the split infinitive are commonly considered more right because that’s what people were mistakenly taught. And when we’ve been formally taught something, we often become attached to that idea as being the right or only way.

It’s a lot like the word alright.

Stanch linguists will tell you that this is an aberration of all right.

The argument is then – which way is wrong?

The answer is the same as the idea of the split infinitive – neither way is wrong.

Why?

Because one way (the traditionally wrong way) was not part of common usage and those individuals who chose to speak/write that way were thought of as ‘uneducated,’ crass or ignorant. The wrong usage was common to ‘commoners’ and treated like the word ain’t (a colloquial word used only by some people – unfortunately that still makes me cringe when not kept strictly to dialogue).

It all comes down to whether you’re being highbrow or not. Textbooks, journals, newspapers, essayists, teachers, professors, doctors of PhD’s, presidents and so on would be looked down on if they ever used ‘weak’ vocabulary such as “to quickly run” or “alright.”

It’s all about stature and your audience.

If your audience doesn’t care if you split an infinitive, then it isn’t wrong. You just need to discover who your target reader is and decide for yourself if your narrative voice rings true by observing this ‘non-rule’ or not.

Happy Editing πŸ™‚

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Categories: Editing

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4 replies

  1. I would add that it is also about the level of formality in the writing, not only of stature and audience. If a piece is written for a senior thesis in college, its level of formality is different from a letter to a friend. I am not saying the writing is better, but the level of expectation of obeying the formal rules of written English are different.

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  2. If you’re writing fiction (or even non) you can mess with the rules when your character speaks like that. Besides, I find reading pieces that are written strictly according to the “rule” quite boring and very unrealistic.

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    • Undoubtedly characters can speak however they choose. The narration is usually looked at more strictly depending on the voice. I just find it interesting that everyone assumes it’s a rule when it’s not, it’s a preference πŸ˜‰ and business practice.

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