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November 15, 1998 - Split Infinitives - 2002-02-12

INTRO: It's time for Wordmaster, our weekly look at American English. Today Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble report on a debate that, while not exactly ear-splitting, has been getting a lot of attention lately.


Voice: "Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before."

AA: I'm Avi Arditti, and what we're about to say should come as no surprise to fans of the old TV show "Star Trek." The latest word from the Oxford University Press is -- and we quote -- "in standard English, the principle of allowing split infinitives is broadly accepted as both normal and useful.'

RS: I'm Rosanne Skirble. Just what is an infinitive and what does it mean to split it? An infinitive is the basic form of a verb, and in English we usually see it with the word "to" before it as in "to run," "to see," "to hear." To split the infinitive is to stick an adverb in the middle: "to quickly run," or as we just heard "to boldly go."

AA: Generations of English speakers have been taught that it's wrong to split an infinitive. So when the publishers of the mighty Oxford English Dictionary say otherwise, it's controversial. The news produced headlines like "it's okay to sometimes split infinitives" and "it's just fine to boldly go."

RS: That last headline went with a New York Times essay written by Patricia O'Conner, author of "Woe is I," a book about grammar.


O'CONNER: "I'm not saying and no one else is saying that the infinitive should always be split, that in other words the "to" should always be followed by an adverb if possible. The point is that you put an adverb where it seems to most -- seems to belong most logically. You see, I didn't say 'to most logically belong.' But there are times when it would be quite awkward to avoid splitting.

"For example, in the phrase, to 'quietly drop the charges,' that he had murdered his wife. Now, you could say, 'quietly to drop' the charges against him or you could put it at the end, 'to drop the charges against him that he had murdered his wife quietly. You can turn a sentence upside down to avoid splitting, but in fact the 'quietly' really belongs with the drop, 'to quietly drop' the charges. Like 'he refused to flatly deny,' 'he tried to more than triple his earnings.' There's nowhere else you can put 'more than.' [or] 'they Decided to voluntarily pay their overdue taxes. You can't say 'they decided voluntarily to pay their overdue taxes.' That's a different meaning.

AA: "So, why didn't Shakespeare say, 'to be or to not be'?"

O'CONNER: "Because, I'm sure that we all agree that it sounds better to say, 'to be or not to be.' If he said, 'to be or to not be' he wouldn't be Shakespeare. But, if you told Shakespeare that he shouldn't split an infinitive he would have looked at you like you were nuts. All the great writers in English have split infinitives. They've done this for hundreds of years."

AA: Patricia O'Conner says the rule against splitting infinitives comes from an 1864 British grammar book called "A Plea for the Queen's English," which tried to apply rules of Latin to English. She says the rule was quickly disputed, yet it crossed the Atlantic to America and has stuck with us ever since.

RS: Samuel Pickering is an English professor at the University of Connecticut. He says that after he was quoted nationally as saying splitting infinitives shows poor grammatical taste he got a lot of hate mail.


PICKERING: "People took my statement that 'I do not dine with people who split infinitives' quite literally and urged me to eat meals with children and people from other social classes. They called me haughty, elitist, aristocratic. [They] urged me to get a real life -- generally that's to be found in smoky places where people have dangling participles. They did all these sorts of things.

RS: "So how did you feel when you got all this mail?"

PICKERING: "I loved it!"

RS: For one thing, Professor Pickering says, it gave him something to write about -- and when he writes, he says, he never splits infinitives.

AA: But these days most grammar guides say it's OK to split infinitives -- if you know what you're doing. While, we repeat, Shakespeare split infinitives, let us remember that he did not write "to be or to not be."

RS: That is the question. And if you have any questions, send them to us!

AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.