to boldly go

I’ll try to write about the rhetoric course I just listened to. I thought it was excellent. I rated it 5 stars on some website or other. But either human nature or a curmudgeonly personality has me blogging about one of a handful of complaints I had with it: the lecturer said that the split-infinitive rule is a dumb rule based on a false comparison of Latin and Germanic languages, but he did concede that splitting infinitives is ungrammatical.

(In contrast, he said that the supposed rules against starting a sentence with a conjunction and against ending a sentence with a preposition were simply false.)

Well, let’s see what Chicago has to say about split infinitives:

5.106 Split infinitive

Although from about 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate the to from the principal verb {they expect to more than double their income next year}. See 5.160.

And yes, while we’re at it, let’s look at 5.160:

5.160 Adverb within verb phrase

When an adverb qualifies a verb phrase, the natural place for the adverb is between the auxiliary verb and the principal verb {the administration has consistently repudiated this view} {the reports will soon generate controversy} {public opinion is sharply divided}. See 5.104. Some adverbs may follow the principal verb {you must go quietly} {Are you asking rhetorically?}. There is no rule against adverbial modifiers between the parts of a verb phrase. In fact, it’s typically preferable to put them there {the heckler was abruptly expelled} {the bus had been seriously damaged in the crash}. And sometimes it is perfectly appropriate to split an infinitive verb with an adverb to add emphasis or to produce a natural sound. See 5.106. A verb’s infinitive or to form is split when an intervening word immediately follows to {to bravely assert}. If the adverb bears the emphasis in a phrase {to boldly go} {to strongly favor}, then leave the split infinitive alone. But if moving the adverb to the end of the phrase doesn’t suggest a different meaning or impair the sound, then it is an acceptable way to avoid splitting the verb. Recasting a sentence just to eliminate a split infinitive or avoid splitting the infinitive can alter the nuance or meaning: for example, it’s best to always get up early (always modifies get up) is not quite the same as it’s always best to get up early (always modifies best). Or an unnatural phrasing can result: it’s best to get up early always.

I can’t tell you the number of writers I’ve worked with who, for some reason, believe that these false rules are real rules. It makes for some very awkward prose. I suppose it’s also what keeps editors employed.


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