Articles tagged with: the Latin roots of English

Never Split Infinitives

Splitting the infinitive

 

Never split the infinitive. Unless you want to…

I can not stress this enough. When composing a stirring rebuttal to Cicero’s latest piece, or writing a formal letter of complaint to your local senator, magistrate, Comitia Centuriata or Concilium Plebis, it is important never to split the infinitive. To do otherwise would suggest you are of low breeding or barbaric education. When writing in Latin, there are some rules a citizen of Rome should never break.

Wait! What? You’re writing in English and not Latin.

Well, I guess you plebs could write in English if you really had to. I can’t imagine why you would.  An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur?* and all that. To be honest, the rule against split infinitives is more of a guideline. In the 19th century, there was an attempt to make it a prescriptive grammatical rule, but that has long since been abandoned. The original objection harkens to comparisons with the structure of Latin. Since few people speak Latin these days, objections aren’t as strenuous as they once were. When writing fiction the linguistical gymnastics required to avoid splitting the infinitive is rarely worth the effort and may change the emphasis and meaning of a sentence. Still, it’s safest to avoid split infinitives in formal writing.

For example: “You really have to watch him.” vs “You have to really watch him.”

The first suggests it is important to watch the person, the second (with the split infinitive) is suggesting you have to watch closely or you will miss something subtle.

So for the budding fiction writer when your editor (or grammar checker) flags an excessive number of split infinitives, don’t panic. Unless you are regularly getting more than one split infinitive per 5,000 words you can usually just ignore this. Grammar is a blunt instrument and doesn’t take into consideration deliberate stylistic choices. If you do find too many examples then it may be a good idea to excise the entire sentence instead of trying to re-write it. If you need that bit of information try a completely new structure. In short when it comes to writing fiction “Arcem ex cloacâ facĕre.”**

*Don’t you know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed? 

**Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.