Falcone's Crossroads

Where This Meets That

Wednesday Wordplay – Split Infinitives

Every time I get together with my old MBA cronies, they rankle me over a low grade I received once on a finance paper.

Last week, I met with them again and once again faced their ridicule, scraping anew the scab off the old scar. So, instead of “playing” with words today, I’m going on record to exorcise this past demon and hopefully help some of my readers to avoid this dire pitfall in their own lives.

See, the paper was a group project, and finance wasn’t my strong suit.  I had assured my group that my strongest input would come in writing and “wordsmithing” the paper, so they entrusted me with that responsibility.

Our resulting grade flattened us all.  Worse for me, the single largest component of our, ahem, “missing” points was that my writing included a “split infinitive”.  It alone cost us a letter grade.

Now, as an English major, I had long since learned to avoid comma splices, run on sentences, and the like.  Each of those was good for a letter grade from the moment I first stepped into a college classroom.  But a “split infinitive”?

I immediately followed up with the dean of my undergrad English department.  He said that technically “Mr. Finance Big-Britches” (my words) was correct but that the rule was generally considered archaic and that I should simply navigate the rest of my time with that professor accordingly.

So, what is a “split infinitive”?  Anyone who has ever seen the original Star Trek television series has heard Captain Kirk’s famous opening monologue in which he declares their mission, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”  Well, “to go” is the infinitive, and splitting the words by adding the adverb “boldly” results in a split infinitive.

Kirk split infinitiveThe premise of the faulty “rule” derives from a prescriptive notion of language rather than a descriptive one.  In Latin, infinitive forms of verbs are packaged in a single word (i.e., “amare” means “to love”); thus, to “split” the infinitive would amount to changing the word altogether.  In English, however, an infinitive (technically, a “full infinitive”) is two words, and failing to split them can change the intended meaning of a sentence.

Oxford Dictionaries Online demonstrates with the sentence, “You have to really watch him,” noting that the technically “correct” rephrasing, “You really have to watch him” doesn’t carry the exact same meaning; the former means, “You have to watch him very closely,” while the latter means, “It’s very important that you watch him.”

So, now you know.

What burns me still today is that this wasn’t even an English paper but a finance one.  Since I proceeded “to quickly burn” the finance paper after agreeing to disagree, I don’t remember the exact wording that drew our penalty, but I can say that I was never again penalized for a split infinitive during my graduate coursework!


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This entry was posted on June 26, 2013 by in Wednesday Wordplay and tagged , , , , , .
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