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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.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.