Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bad writing and poor grammar

One of the most pernicious myths about English grammar is that you should never split an infinitive. Linguists point out time and time again that the prohibition against splitting infinitives makes no sense in English, and that it was originally derived from Latin and French where it is impossible to split an infinitive.

An infinitive is a verb with the word "to". For example:

  • We plan TO GO immediately home.

  • At the time I intended TO INVADE only half of Poland.

  • My auntie told me TO KICK the guy viciously.

And here they are again split:

  • We plan TO immediately GO home.

  • At the time I intended TO only INVADE half of Poland.

  • My auntie told me TO viciously KICK the guy.

There's no doubt that sometimes splitting infinitives can weaken a sentence, but very often it makes it clearer and stronger. In case you still believe that infinitives should never be split, please read this and this and this.

But then there are still those who continue to spread the superstition that splitting infinitives is bad grammar, like the aptly-named "Lousy Writer". When I first came across his site, I had just spent a delightful half hour or so browsing the World Wide Words site. Compared to Michael Quinion's delightful prose, which has flow and rhythm, going to the Lousy Writer site is like having your eyeballs sand-blasted. I can't imagine taking the Lousy Writer's advice on style matters, or common English idioms.

There's at least one common construction where even the most rabid "Thou
Shalt Not Split Infinitives" mavens end up splitting their infinitives:

  • An effective way TO more than DOUBLE your income is by mugging little old ladies.

On a related note, are you shamed by you English?

Shamed By You English?

Click thumbnail for full-sized image.

1 comment:

Metro said...

Poor grammar can occasionally strengthen a sentence:

"To boldly go where no-one has gone before," just wouldn't sound the same as "To go boldly ..."