The Language Perfectionist: Let’s Split this Scene

A contentious issue among language enthusiasts is the use of the split infinitive. Before reviewing the arguments of the two sides, let’s look at a few examples:

  • “It is even possible to legally download textbooks free, thanks to some new sites and services.”
  • “This is a chance to constructively harness the idealism of thousands of Americans….”
  • “In New York, if a lethal agent is detected, the city plans to immediately distribute drugs to counter the bug.”
  • “On several occasions, Israelis have managed to temporarily suppress violence.”

For centuries, language purists insisted that an infinitive must never be split. Then came the reaction: Permissivists denounced the prohibition as a “superstition.”

A few writers on language take a middle position. I’m in this camp. The split-infinitive taboo is a convention of the language, so let’s respect it – unless the result sounds awkward. All the above examples could be rephrased to avoid the splits. On the other hand, rephrasing would be difficult or impossible with this sort of sentence: “Analysts expect the stock price to more than triple next year.”

But clumsy sentences can also be created by splitting the infinitive. I found this example in a concert program: “Sousa marches often seem to not particularly relate to their titles.”

Recently, an eloquent case for nonsplitting was made by a reader, Richard Palumbo, in a letter to The New York Times Book Review: “Split infinitives are like putting an insurmountable obstacle in the way of a speeding train that must stop to clear the tracks before picking up speed again. We lose the thrust and impact when we separate preposition and verb….”

That makes sense to me. So my advice is simple. Follow the rule unless a good reason exists to break it. I sometimes wonder if anything would have been lost if the Star Trek mission had been “to go boldly where no man has gone before.”

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]
  • Paul Newcomb

    Don, for years, now, I have never failed to enjoy and employ the lessons you deliver to Early To Rise readers…and I have never before felt the need to reply, rather than simply nodding my head in agreement. This morning, however, I must suggest a small correction:

    STAR TREK’s USP really could have been improved without the split infinitive, but not in exactly the way you suggested! Consider the process of developing a “position statement”, where the primary objective [not the “Prime Directive”] must receive the greatest clarity and emphasis. In this case, it is [1] “to go where no man has gone before”, where less cumbersome verbiage would lose the required drama, and [2] “boldly”.

    Better, for USP purposes [and this really was a good one], to have said, “Boldly to go where no man has gone before”. Nine words to tell the whole story, with both memorability and rhythm, is a satisfactory result even though the technical objective is to tell it all in an absolute minimum of words.

    What, then, is the all-time best USP? My vote goes to “WINDOWS”. Yes, I believe it is a USP, since I defy you to repeat verbatim any other total, public definition of the product. We did pretty well, too, at Colgate-Palmolive [some 49 years ago] with “SOAKY the Fun Bath”…..and even then the “the” was superfluous and dropped in subsequent use. I recall that it was the top-selling new grocery product of that time period, since even a tiny toddler could pick it up and include it in his demands from the shopping cart seat!

    Please keep up the good and entertaining [at least for us OCD types] work!