On split infinitives and phrasal verbs

One time in my newspaper I column, I wrote: “Even professionals have to look these things up.’”

A reader named Barbara was irate: “You do that thing that raises the hair on the back of  my neck," she wrote. "You split an infinitive! Excuse me just a minute while I walk out to the patio just off my office space and scream!”

The split infinitive is the term used to describe constructions like “to boldly go,” in which a word intercedes between a particle “to” introducing a base form of a verb like “go.”

Here’s how Fowler’s Modern English Usage explains it: “The base form of an infinitive is shown in ‘to love,’ in which the verbal part is preceded by the particle ‘to.’ When such a combination is severed or ‘split’ by the insertion of an adverb or adverbial phrase (e.g. ‘to madly love,’ ‘to really and truly love,’) or other word or words the construction is called a split infinitive.”

That’s not what I did. There’s nothing between my particle “to” and my verb “look.” So the only thing Barbara could have been talking about was my insertion of “these things” between “look” and “up.”

“To look up,” in this sentence, is something called a phrasal verb. A phrasal verb is a group of two or more words, usually a verb and a preposition, that together combine to make a unique verb with a distinct meaning. Compare “to chalk” with “to chalk up.” The former means to write something in chalk, the latter has a completely different meaning: to attribute. So this is a phrasal verb: to put up, to storm out, to warm over, to throw up, to give up — these are just some of the many combos we call phrasal verbs.

“To look up” is not a phrasal verb in the sentence “If you hear a noise in the sky, look up.” In this sentence, “to look” means “to look” and the preposition just adds extra information (a direction). But in “I have to look up the spelling of a word,” the phrase “to look up” means something different from “to look.” So it’s a phrasal verb.

And never, in all the years I’ve been reading and talking about grammar, have I heard of a rule against breaking up elements of a phrasal verb. If any such rule existed, you wouldn’t be able to say “to chalk it up” or “to give it up.”

But even if I had split an infinitive, would Barbara be right? Nope. There is no rule against the so-called split infinitive. Here are some experts.

“No absolute taboo should be placed on the use of simple adverbs between the particle ‘to’ and the verbal part of the infinitive.” — Fowler’s Modern English Usage

The idea that you should never split an infinitive is “superstition.” — Garner’s Modern American Usage

“Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does. ‘I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.’” — Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

Some experts go further, saying there’s no such thing as a split infinitive.: “The term is actually a misnomer, as ‘to’ is only an appurtenance of the infinitive, which is the uninflected form of the verb.” — Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

So I didn't split an infinitive. But even if I had, there would have been no reason for Barbara to scream.

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