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Split Infinitives


Dr. Goodword (Robert Beard, PhD, Linguistics)
One of the most enduring urban myths surrounding the English language is that proper English does not allow "split infinitives". We should not say things like, "Euphrosia is known to persistently break the rules of the convent," but rather, "Euphrosia is known to break the rules of the convent persistently." The former order of words keeps persistently closer to the word it modifies, break. The latter word order keeps the preposition to and the verb break next to each other, as though to were a prefix. Of course, it isn't.
"Split infintives" are nothing more than a canard (to use a recent Good Word) when applied to the English language. English does not have infinitives, so it is impossible to split them. An infinitive is a single verbal form that means "to (do something)", like Latin vivere "to live", French vivre "to live", or German leben "to live".
The fact that English has a means of expressing the same grammatical category that infinitives do in other languages does not imply that English has infinitives. Infinitives are not phrases; they are single words that cannot be "split" in languages that have legitimate ones. Nothing can be placed between the stems and infinitive endings of Latin vive-re and French viv-re. Nothing can come between the German verbal stem leb- "live" and the infinitive ending -en.
We can call phrases like to live in English infinitive phrases if we like; they do have the grammatical function that infinitives carry in languages with verbal inflection. However, we must keep in mind that such phrases are not infinitives but infinitive phrases.
The difference between an infinitive and an infinitive phrase is just as great as that between a noun (house) and a noun phrase (a house). You can't split an English noun but you certainly can "split" a noun phrase: a lovely house. The term "split" doesn't even fit this situation: you may simply add modifiers to your heart's desire to phrases of any sort, noun, verb, adjective, or adverb phrases: "a lovely old charming if ramshackle red brick house."
The split infinitive debate comes from the fact that infinitives did exist at the beginning of the Old English period, which began around the middle of the 5th century. By the end of the Old English period, about a quarter of infinitival forms were preceded by to. Some verbs were already losing the infinitive ending, -an in Old English. The Old English infinitive for "fall" was feallan and for "drink", it was drincan. Over the course of Middle English, from the mid 11th century to the middle of the 17th century, the infinitive forms, like the Accusative and Genitive case endings disappeared. No one argues that we should retain the noun case endings, so why would anyone argue for keeping the infinitive alive, even in spirit?
The idea that "split" infinitives should be avoided was encouraged by the fact that English borrowed heavily from Latin during the Middle English period. May scholastics of the time believed English to be a "degeneration" of Latin and that we should try to preserve Latin grammar as much as possible in English. Since Latin infinitives could not be split, English infinitives, or whatever happened to correlate with Latin infinitives, should not be split.
We know now, of course, that Latin and English descended from the same proto-language, Proto-Indo-European. They are related but English grammar today is wholly different from Latin grammar. English is a Germanic language, not one of the Romance languages that developed from Latin. Languages change dramatically over the centuries. English moved from an inflectional language with variable endings on nouns and verbs to an isolating language in which grammatical functions are indicated more often by independent particles like prepositions and articles.
Today English uses an infinitive phrase marked by the preposition to for the infinitive function. Like other phrases, the head may be modified ad infinitum by adjectives or adverbs. The very idea of a "split" or "cleft" infinitive makes little sense in the 21st century.
References:
Dr. Goodword
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