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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Doing the splits... Another grammar post...

Not so long ago, I wrote a post about my perspective on the use of the passive voice. In it, I warned that I might eventually tackle another pet peeve issue, the split infinitive. I know this kind of topic doesn't excite everyone, but as a writer I take words and their use seriously, so please indulge me...

For those who don't spend their hours fretting over grammatical constructs and who might need a refresher, a split infinitive occurs when one inserts a word or phrase (most frequently an adverb) between "to" and its uninflected verb.

A popular example of the split infinitive in action is the famous introduction of the Star Trek television series. The crew was "to boldly go where no man has gone before." See "boldly" and its placement? That's a split infinitive.

There is a traditional school of thought that argues split infinitives are inappropriate. Although not everyone agrees with that approach, the perspective has lasted long enough that even Microsoft Word will tag split infinitives as potential errors.

I am not a grammarian, so I won't pretend to understand all of the reasons why split infinitives have been deemed errant. I believe it stems from some of the grammatical rules involving infinitives and Latin. I write in English, not Latin, so that kind of reasoning doesn't really appeal to me.

I split infinitives every once in awhile, and when I do I look over my work to make sure I am communicating effectively. I don't see the split infinitive as an error. Instead, I see it as a warning sign. Sometimes, things read better after "fixing" the split infinitive. In other cases, the "transgression" does a superb job of communicating my idea.

Nonetheless, I do scrutinize them. Why? Because they generally include an adverb. I try to use adverbs sparingly. (That last sentence was sort of a joke... Get it? It used an adverb.) That's because others ways to communicate the idea may be available.

Take this sentence for example: "Nonetheless, I do scrutinize them." As I was typing that in the preceding paragraph I started to say "Nonetheless, I do review them carefully." My mind immediately considered "Nonetheless, I do carefully review them." Either of those options would have been tolerable. Both communicate the essential message. However, by choosing a better verb in the first place I was able to escape having to use the adverb at all. I guess I just feel that overuse of adverbs is a byproduct of imprecise language use.

So, if you light up your workspace in a green haze from all of those underline split infinitives the Word grammar-check finds, you might want to take a look at why you are splitting. Don't check because you are worried about adhering to a grammatical rule that started to go out of style centuries ago. Check because it may be telling you something else about your writing. Don't be surprised if you spot opportunities to make better word choices, but there's no need to elimate the use of split infinitives completely.

I am sure this will probably upset some very conservative English grammarians, but sometimes split infinitives are effective tools. In the end, writing is about communication and if your choices comport with standard usage, maintain an overall consistency with grammatical rules and are edited with an eye toward readability and understandability, you will be communicating.