The curse of the split infinitive

19 June 2012

Every now and again the split infinitive raises its ugly head. What’s amazing is that most of us have no idea what one is, or why it matters. But if you do, it somehow evokes such levels of fury, it can undermine an entire piece of copy.

What is a split infinitive?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary a split infinitive is described as:

“… when you put an adverb between to and a verb.”

Probably the most famous split infinitive in contemporary culture (contemporary in the loose sense of an ageing copywriter) is the trekky mission statement:

“To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

What we recently got hauled across the grammatical coals for was a quote, directly taken from Ant’s telephone interview, where our client’s satisfied customer said:

“They took time to really understand my business.”

The interesting thing is that restructuring the sentence (and in the process, mis-quoting our interviewee), would result in:

“They really took time to understand my business.”

In my view that shifts the emphasis of the sentence, from ‘understanding’ to ‘taking time’, which was not the essence of what was being said.

Does it really matter?

In a word. No.

Delve heavily into the grammar books, as our professional proofreader Alison loves to do, and you will find that English doesn’t actually have an infinitive form in the same way that French or Latin does. The objections tend to arise from people who have learned Latin and therefore feel (wrongly) that the split infinitive is a sin that drags down the quality of their prose.

To boldly split or not?

As usual with copywriting, it all comes down to your audience. That’s not the client, by the way, but the audience they wish to communicate with. If you have a client who screams “split infinitive!” in charge of a youth brand, it’s probably worth the fight. If your target audience may have learned Latin or formal grammar in their school days and has split infinitive phobia deeply ingrained in their psyche, it’s probably best avoided.

Categories: General ruminations

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