*Reader Wail Part 2: My 'Split Infinitive'

Last week I shared an e-mail I got from a reader about an “error” in my weekly column.  Here’s the sentence that drove her nuts.

“Even professionals have to look these things up.’”

And here’s what the reader, Barbara, had to say about it: “You do that thing that raises the hair on the back of  my neck -- 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 for ‘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

Next week we’ll talk about reader Barbara's other allegation: that I ended a sentence with a preposition.

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2 Responses to “*Reader Wail Part 2: My 'Split Infinitive'”

  1. Saw a fun question today in a NYT article:

    The results were impressive. Those on the “Atkins” diet burned 350 calories more per day — the equivalent of an hour of moderate exercise — than those on the standard low-fat diet. Those on the low-glycemic diet burned 150 calories more, roughly equivalent to an hour of light exercise.

    What do you think that last sentence means? Or should I be able to figure it out? The low-glycemic diet burns a total of 500 calories (350 + 150) more than the low-fat, or 150 calories more than low-fat?

  2. I'm so relieved! When I read your first column I realized I had no idea what a split infinitive was, which made me nervous. But now, I find it's irrelevant. Hooray! Happy 4th of July!