Knowing how I follow developments in the grammar universe, a colleague sent me a recent article from The Economist, a British publication with international coverage and subscribers.
Started in Scotland in 1843, The Economist now claims a reputation for “a distinctive blend of news based on fact, and analysis incorporating The Economist’s perspective.”
The change in The Economist’s style guide that warranted my colleague’s attention relates to the use of infinitives. The editors have declared — at long last — that infinitives may indeed be split.
Infinitive? What’s an infinitive?
If you need a refresher, infinitives are verbs preceded by the preposition to: to leave, to ride, to increase, to get, to explain, to hope, etc.
The problem with infinitives has been the recommendation — some considered it an edict — by esteemed sources that infinitives never be separated (i.e. split) by an adverb.
Were renowned playwright George Bernard Shaw around, he’d no doubt say, “It’s about time!” He once complained to The Economist that one of its editors had insisted on not allowing a split infinitive.
Shaw didn’t like the resulting syntax. He believed that a writer should have a choice on how to express infinitive verb forms.
Let’s look at to leave when the adverb suddenly is included. Shaw most likely would consider the last version the only sensible choice* of these three options. which puts suddenly smack dab in the middle of to and leave.
He decided to leave suddenly.
He decided suddenly to leave.
He decided to suddenly leave.*
Consider the potential interpretation of each statement:
- He decided to leave suddenly.
(He gave it some thought and decided to make a quick departure?)
- He decided suddenly to leave.
(He made a quick decision to depart, but not necessarily right away?)
- He decided to suddenly leave.
(He made a decision to leave immediately.)
Shaw had a point: Not splitting infinitives can rob a statement of clarity. And there are constructions where not splitting infinities sounds odd.
Case Study example
Here’s an example from one of my projects, a case study about a manufacturer of commercial and industrial lighting, where I chose to split the infinitive:
The emergence of LED technology has enabled the manufacturer to dramatically increase fixture life span.
Neither of my other options flows smoothly:
- The emergence of LED technology has enabled the manufacturer dramatically to increase fixture life span.
- The emergence of LED technology has enabled the manufacturer to increase dramatically fixture life span.
Here’s another example from the same case study:
Seeking to accurately measure production time, engineers developed a unique approach.
Here’s the sentence without splitting the infinitive:
- Seeking accurately to measure production time, engineers developed a unique approach.
- Seeking to measure accurately production time, engineers developed a unique approach.
Again, the alternate versions where the infinitive is not split do not flow well.
To Do or Not To Do
One of the trickiest infinitives involves using a negative. Does it make more sense to not do something or not to do something?
You should try not to split your infinitives.
You should try to not split your infinitives.
Which sounds better to you? My online research shows that most sources consider either order acceptable.
So there you have it. Infinitives are not joined in a sacred union. They can be separated by an adverb and still capably function.
In addition to the email from my colleague, I heard from a blog follower who wondered what I thought about Infinitives. The Economist added a newsworthy reason to write about it.
Are there other questions lurking out there? Let me know!
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