“One (misconception) is the belief that the split infinitive is a grammatical error. It is not. If it is an error at all, it is a rhetorical fault–a question of style–and not a grammatical one. Another is the curiously persistent belief that the split infinitive is widely condemned by authorities. That too is untrue.”
-Bill Bryson, Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words
I’ve been called out a few times for splitting infinitives, and until recently accepted them as a venial grammar sin. This never felt completely right to me, and it’s nice to see the record set straight.
“The problem of split infinitives arises because of a conflict between the needs of the infinitive and the needs of an adverb. The natural position for the two elements of a full infinitive is together: ‘He proceeded to climb the ladder.’ With adverbs the most natural position is, very generally, just before the verb: ‘He slowly climbed the ladder.’”
Now we’re getting somewhere. The interesting thing is the idea of a most natural position for an adverb. Would “he climbed the ladder slowly” be less natural? Not really.
But how about: “To go boldly where no man has gone before”? Or: “To go where no man has gone before, boldly”? Imagine Captain Kirk blurting out that mouthful of clay as the sleek frame of the Enterprise whooshes by.
So adverb placement can certainly change the aesthetics of our lines. And adverbs are an especially portable part of speech–how often do you have three options about where to put your noun?
What’s tricky is how to locate the most aesthetically pleasing or “natural” position for an adverb, or for anything. Yet somehow, we will.
May 9, 2012