Splitting headaches

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[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

To boldly go where no man has gone before. You don’t have to be a Trekkie to recognise a great piece of branding when you see it. Coined in the 60s, to this day that ‘to boldly go’ strapline conjures up images of pointy-eared protagonists, low-budget hi-camp and thinly veiled allegories for the human condition.

And yet there are certain people in this world upon whom a line like that has an effect akin to fingernails being scraped down a blackboard. How come? Why that split infinitive of course.

So what’s an infinitive? Why do some people consider it such a crime to split one? And why are such individuals so patently, so unarguably, so utterly wrong?

Let’s start from the beginning. An infinitive is the basic form of the verb. It’s the form that appears in the dictionary, free of alterations conveying such information as number, person or tense. An infinitive is ‘flee’ or ‘to flee’ as opposed to ‘flees’ or ‘fled’.

Now some misguided writers find it an affront to good taste to separate that ‘to’ from its ‘flee’. So, for example, the phrase ‘he had to quickly flee the scene’ is considered less elegant and correct than ‘he had to flee the scene quickly’ (ok) or ‘he had quickly to flee the scene’ (urgh).

When clunkiness is favoured in the name of correctness, something’s up – and a look at the history of the split infinitive proves that to indeed be the case (!). For the source of this supposedly unassailable tenet? Invented a few centuries ago by a bunch of fusty old grammarians trying to apply the rules of Latin to English. Yep, because a language long dead was considered superior to our own native tongue – and because that language only ever had one-word infinitives (Latin ‘laudare’, for example, translates as ‘to praise) and so by definition couldn’t be split – a handful of blokes in powdered wigs decided the same should be true of English.

Now, what if someone clever-sounding and authoritative told you French was better than English, and that therefore all nouns should be assigned either masculine or feminine status (gender to be decreed by them, of course), and accordingly preceded by ‘le’ or ‘la’ instead of ‘the’? Would you?

No? Then feel free to invoke the brave spirit of those intrepid pioneers of space, time and tight nylon tops – and to boldly go where many writers have gone before.

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