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To ‘boldly’ go where no pedant has gone before

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It’s probably not what you’d expect to hear from us pavement pedants. But we love to surprise. And we love the beauty, playful and ever so creative way words can be used to engage, encourage, entice and excite. Which is why sometimes, perceived grammar ‘rules’ should be brushed aside in favour of what works in that moment, for that reader, in that context.

So no. Split infinitives are not an offence. They never really have been. Despite what we were taught in school, there is no actual rule that says you can’t put an adverb or adverbial phrase (describing word) in between the infinitive form of a verb (‘to’ and ‘walk’ or ‘to’ and ‘understand’, for example).

It’s thought that the premise of avoiding split infinitives came from an attempt to make English function like Latin, where an infinitive is one word and cannot be split. Regardless of its origins, to split or not to split has been the cause of endless debate and discussion in writing circles over the years – almost as much as whether you can start a sentence with And.

‘Will I have to constantly repeat the rule for you to fully understand?’ conveys the sheer exasperation the writer has for the situation

So where do we stand? We’re firmly in the splitting camp. If it serves the sentence, style and story. Sometimes a split infinitive works really well, providing clarity, emphasis and readability.  For example:

‘She decided to gradually retreat from the room he was in’, explains the actions of a woman who wants to slip out undetected. The split infinitive here works to describe her movement and tells the reader something about her mood, manner and motivation too. If we didn’t split the infinitive, it would confuse the meaning:

‘She decided gradually to retreat from the room he was in’, makes it sound like her decision was gradual. Or ‘she decided to retreat from the room he was in gradually,’ makes it sound like whoever he was, he was in the room gradually. The only other option ‘she decided to retreat gradually from the room he was in,’ just sounds clunky.

Similarly, a split infinitive can provide emphasis and impact. For example:

‘Will I have to constantly repeat the rule for you to fully understand?’ conveys the sheer exasperation the writer has for the situation, where as ‘will I have to repeat the rule constantly for you to understand fully?’ just doesn’t pack the same punch.

However, we wouldn’t advocate a split infinitive above all else. Because sometimes a sentence works better without a split infinitive, or indeed without an adjective at all.

Think, sense, style, story every time you write and that should help you steer your course.

For example, the sentence ‘this software allows your business to quickly, easily and effectively manage all tasks,’ is overly long and descriptive. The sentence doesn’t need a split infinitive. Or three adverbs. It could be better written like this – ‘this software will help you manage the running of your business better.’

In short, when it comes to split infinitives it’s not black and white. But it’s not out and out wrong either.

The general approach we’d suggest is to do what feels right. Split sometimes. Don’t others. And always consider whether you need an adverb at all. Think, sense, style, story every time you write and that should help you steer your course.

Right, we’re off to jubilantly make a cup of tea. Or to make a cup of tea jubilantly. You decide…

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Some great blogs about split infinitives if you fancy further reading:

Sentence First – How awkwardly to avoid splitting infinitives

The Grammarist – There is no rule against splitting infinitives

About Gramma – What is a split infinitive and what’s wrong with it?

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