Wednesday, April 24, 2024

MLP split on infinitive question

| December 3, 2020 1:00 AM

An open letter to English teachers, those glorious guardians of syntax, those tired defenders of dogma:

Your devoted Mrs. Language Person asks: Is it wrong to split an infinitive?

MLP’s status as a Snitty Old Biddy (emphasis on old) would dictate that yes, to separate two halves of a cohesive whole is the height of grammatical cruelty. To be or not to be, but never to not be.

Like Juliet without her Romeo. Chocolate without peanut butter.

Unnecessary tragedy.

Yet certain grammar historians write that infinitive-splitting ne’er was truly verboten; ‘twas but an 18th century myth. That Hamlet, in the words of the bard, may just as well have said “to not be.” Can they be right, when it feels so wrong?

An infinitive is simply a verb preceded by “to,” as in to ask. To butcher (the English language). To split (the integrity of an infinitive) or to distress (that SOB MLP).

This dubious myth derives from a time when grammarians believed English should be modeled on Latin — a logical presumption for a language with so many Latin roots. You see, Dear Reader, in Latin and its descendant French, Spanish, and Italian, and sometimes our other root language of Greek, infinitives are one word. Un-splittable.

One point for those 18th century grammarians.

But, say the splitters, English is more Germanic than Romance (rome-ance, i.e., Latin). So why feel obligated by Latin rules?

Counterpoint to the sword-wielders.

Your MLP points to an argument of style: Why separate a perfect pair just for the fun of it? The best writers do not split willy-nilly. Their talent precludes them from such cruelty, such interruption of natural flow.

Occasionally, without alternatives, infinitives must spend time apart. MLP expects grammar mistakes to more than double in 10 years. There is no other place for “more than” except between to and double.

Of course, one might also simply rewrite that sentence to avoid the split. MLP expects that in 10 years, grammar mistakes will more than double.

Concede that point to those ancient grammarians.

Was Gene Roddenberry right when he said, “to explore new life” or when he said, “to boldly go?”

Would Hamlet's speech be as admired if it began, “To be or to not be?” Is splitting infinitives to be especially avoided when they include a negative? To not be sounds awkward, if only because we’re not accustomed.

Adverbs admittedly offer another argument in favor of splitters. To boldly go sounds as emphatic as to strongly protest splitting their infinitives.

To protest strongly is accurate, but somehow the protest feels weakened without its forceful precedent.

Grudging point to splitters. And we are tied once again.

So, Dear English Teachers, MLP asks: To split, or not to split?

Mrs. Language Person and Sholeh Patrick are columnists for the Hagadone News Network loath to let go of grammar rules and restrictions. Contact them at