Are split infinitives mistakes?

Now, most experts see nitpicking grammarians as old fashioned

In 2009, Barack Obama took his oath of office twice. A stickler for grammar, the US Chief Justice John Roberts changed the original constitutional oath—“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States.” Apparently, the sinning syntax was the word “faithfully” coming in between and splitting “will” and “execute”. Roberts changed it to “I do solemnly swear that I will execute the office of the president of the United States faithfully.” Though undiscernible, the change provoked fears that the transfer of power was not legitimate. Later that day, in a private ceremony, Obama repeated the original oath.

Few know what a “split infinitive” is, much less care. This black sheep of the English language has fuelled feuds between grammarians and ordinary people, including writers, for centuries. But first things first. Words like “to know”, “to walk” are called infinitives. Putting any word between “to” and the verb is splitting the infinitive. Saying “to really know” or “to faithfully execute” is heresy to grammarians, who also say “will faithfully execute” is actually not a split infinitive because it is preceded by “will” and not “to”. So the Roberts ado was about nothing. Bernard Shaw was so infuriated with his picky copy editor for correcting his split infinitives that he wanted him fired, sneering he can choose “to suddenly go”, “to go suddenly” or “suddenly to go”.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Critics say hairsplitting grammarians are not purists but pedants upholding outdated principles that originated as part of Victorian snobbery in Britain. Says psycholinguist and best-selling author Steven Pinker, ”The rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place.” The British elite was inspired by Latin, the root of the Romance languages like Italian, French and Spanish. Infinitives cannot be split in these languages because the word “to” does not exist before the verb. Importing this to English is “nonsense” says grammar expert June Casagrande: “Split infinitive is a famous grammatical error. But it is not an error at all.”

In normal conversations and communications, people split infinitives because it sounds natural and effective. Sometimes it is infinitely more appropriate to split the infinitive. “Let’s get to really know each other” is better than “Let’s get really to know each other.” A big boost to splitting infinitives was Star Trek’s famous line, “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” Saying “to go boldly…” is lame. The Economist style-guide ruled it’s “pointless” to ban split infinitives. British Researchers found that there has been a three-fold increase in public usage of the split infinitives since 1900.

But do split infinitives cease being mistakes just because more people use them? Yes, say language experts, because the meaning of words keep changing. Like all things alive, languages evolve. They are organic outcomes of change and human creativity. A century ago, splitting infinitives signalled poor classical education. Now most experts see nitpicking grammarians as “fussy and old-fashioned”.

Still, no one can deny the importance of grammarians. They uphold standards of excellence and keep at bay vulgar populism and dumbing down. Observes Pinker, “But this does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Thistlebottom’s classroom is worth keeping. Many such rules originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries.” Despite celebrity expletives, it is too early to say rest in peace, split infinitives.

Pratap is an author and journalist.