Monday, 24 June 2013

To Split or to Not Split?: The Split Infinitive Past and Present

To be or not to be?
To be or to not be?

There are so many opinions about how to ‘properly’ use language (just think of the debate that the word scone can incite!).  One grammatical structure that has caused a lot of controversy over time is the split infinitive.  The infinitive is the root part of a verb and in English this is written as to + verb (e.g. to walk, to run, to understand, to think, etc.).  More prescriptive grammarians feel that it is not acceptable to split the to and the verb, for example with an adverb, such as to fully understand or with the word not, as in to not allow; in fact many prescriptive grammarians have gone as far as to forbid this practice entirely (as opposed to to entirely forbid this practice’, notice!).

The first recorded instance of a strong aversion to the structure appeared in an anonymous letter to the editor of the New England Magazine in 1834, signed by ‘P.’ P explains that s/he doesn’t know of any rules against the split infinitive but dislikes it because it is only used by ‘uneducated persons’ and in ‘newspapers where the editors have not had the advantage of a good education.’  This idea that infinitives should not be split continues to the present day with The Cambridge Guide to English Usage stating ‘Don’t split an infinitive if the result is an inelegant sentence’ as recently as 2004.

Moises D. Perales-Escudero decided to research how the split infinitive was actually being used in modern American English, as opposed to how grammarians feel it should be used.  To do this he used the Corpus of American English or ‘COCA’ which is an online bank of 385 million words.  He investigated the use of the structure in both spoken and written language situations (=registers) and the texts he studied covered the years from 1990 to 2008. 

When he studied the to not vs. not to structure it very quickly became clear that to not is almost never the preferred form, with not to being used much more frequently in all registers.  Although to not is gradually increasing in use, speakers still prefer the not to combination, which adheres to traditional prescriptive views.

When he began to focus on the to + adverb + verb structure, nevertheless, some more interesting patterns emerged, particularly with regards to how split infinitives are used in certain registers.  We might assume that split infinitives would most often be used in spoken language, due to its more informal and less rigid nature and Escudero-Perales did indeed find that some examples, such as to just + verb’, to really + verb and to actually + verb are much more common in spoken registers.  On the other hand, he also found that other examples, such as to effectively + verb and to better + verb, showed strong associations with written academic registers.  In fact, the split infinitive that was used with most frequency in the COCA was to better understand and it was mainly used in the written academic register, which we would probably perceive as the most rigid with regards to language rules.  However, it seems that it is this particular register which has given rise to its own split infinitive forms, especially those made with to better and to effectively. Perales-Escudero suggests that this could be because academics naturally try to achieve better understandings of phenomena or situations and this is reflected in their language – In other words, it makes clearer sense to keep these words together!  

More research in this area is needed but Escudero-Perales’ study has clearly helped us to better understand the modern use of split infinitives…or has it helped us to understand better…?!
Perales-Escudero, Moises D. (2011) To split or to not split: The split infinitive past and present. Journal of English Linguistics 39: 313-334.

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle


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