Thursday, June 08, 2023

MLP: To split, or not to split? The infinitive question

| May 16, 2023 1:00 AM

It may be difficult for Mrs. Language Person’s few, yet oh so dear, readers to believe: Occasionally, that Snitty Old Biddy does indeed concede.

Case in point: the split infinitive. First things first; one must give this verb form its definitive due. An infinitive, you may recall, is identified by the juxtaposition of a verb with “to,” whether expressed or shyly invisible.

Could it be simpler? And yet … Sigh.

Try “and” understand (but please, do not!). MLP may try to explain, and she may explain, but she cannot try and explain. Understand, dear Reader, she may try to explain and she may explain; she cannot do both. One tries, fails or does. One cannot “try and do” a certain task, any more than one can fail and do it. One tries to do it. Would one fail and do it? Of course not. Consistent communication is successful communication, as that S.O. — (oops) Snitty Old Biddy so often nags (nag: to annoy by scolding; a Scandinavian dialectal form of “gnaw”).

Try to spot the infinitives in this sentence to help MLP make her point. See them, dear Reader? Remember, those “to's" can be sneaky. If you “tried to” and you missed it, you helped me (to) make my point. Look again.

All right (not “alright!” It’s all right; misspelling two words by shoving them together doth not justify this new trend. MLP rues the lazy way English is being blurred to indistinction. Sniff, sigh, groan).

Where was she? Oh yes, now that you can find an infinitive, consider its functions. It may serve as a noun (I tried — to stop reading this!) and be that thing you tried to do. It may serve as an adverb, explaining why (we stopped to end the boredom). An infinitive may even serve as a descriptive adjective (N.B.: Is that redundant?); the phrase “MLP is the least likely writer to impress” identifies just which writer is your MLP.

Now that you know well the infinitive, it’s time to split.

Wait, you say; didn’t Mr. English Teacher tell me not to (split infinitives — verbs don’t like invisibility dear Reader; don’t leave that “to” hanging!)? Well, yes, he likely did. Today, he may not bother.

Once upon a more literary time, Latin — that mother of modern language so beautiful, that root of so much we now butcher — was required in English-speaking classrooms. There is no “to” in a Latin verb, so they remain whole and cannot be split. To avoid confusion, the “no split infinitives” rule was established.

And hence, erased entirely.

Sadly, we now cruelly ignore Latin. We encounter her quite by accident as she hangs her poor head, unrecognized. We’ve become unconcerned with our linguistic heritage, which makes it that much easier to beat words to a bloody pulp.

Today your MLP chooses to so graphically lament, and there it is: a split infinitive. Today it is clearer to write “to graphically lament,” than to write “graphically to lament.” One could make an argument for “to lament graphically,” yet even this is less preferred. English speakers today tend to lackadaisically (lazily; without interest or vigor) toss those oh-so-vital verbs to the end of the sentence, the back of the staggered line. We no longer like lackadaisically to toss, although we may like to toss lackadaisically.

Those poor infinitives, stretched and strained across the tortuous sentence.

Today, dear Reader, the choice is entirely yours. Split at will. Communicate successfully and toss reliability to the wind; this Snitty Old Biddy won’t complain. MLP indeed concedes defeat. Sigh.

• • •

Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network, a Snitty Old Biddy whose dear departed and well-spoken mother replied, “look it up” when asked about language. Blame the nag on nurture and contact her at

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