Posted in Today's File, Writing

To Boldly Split an Infinitive…

I grew up in a family of Grammatical Puritans–English teachers on all sides.  It might be permissible to become bored with grammar-reminders, but I’d damn-well-better-not become bored OF them.  Or end a sentence with a preposition.  Or split an infinitive.  Or use “who” when “whom” would be correct (or the reverse).  I was the only waitress I’ve ever known who felt obsessively obligated to inquire, “With whom shall I leave the check?”  And I earned the enmity of my kindergarten teacher–who tried to make me say “If I was“–when I trumped her attempted correction by informing her that “‘If‘ takes the subjunctive.” Ha, take THAT, Bossy Lady!

...but only if you're arguing with more than one person... Otherwise you'd better correct HIS/HER grammar instead.

If I were a little more wise (and a little less smart), I’d have kept my mouth shut.  My contribution to her linguistic education was not well received.

This isn’t to say that I use flawless grammar, either in my daily speech or in my writing–though it’s generally a deliberate choice, and I generally do know what rules I’m breaking.  (I’ll just call my deviations a “stylistic choice,” ahem. That should cover a multitude of sins…)

Nor can I always articulate those rules which were so deeply ingrained during my early life in Grammatical Boot-Camp.  When asked in class to define “Preposition,” all I could say was, “It’s what you don’t end a sentence with.” (ha, just playing.)  Winston Churchill’s take on this one, following an editor’s clumsy correction of his writing to avoid a prepositional ending, was the scathing retort: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” Very Yoda-esque wisdom…

English: the Linguistic Thug

We have some Rules in our absurdly amalgamated language which really don’t make any sense, stemming from early idolization of  other languages and imitation of their rules.  Take the whole splitting-infinitives prohibition…  In Latin you can’t “split an infinitive” because the infinitive is a single word.  “Ire,” for example, means “to go.”  You can’t stick another word in the middle of the Latin infinitive, but there’s truly no logical reason why we shouldn’t be allowed to add an adverb between the two words that make up the English version.  (You know, as in “to boldly go“…) No reason except the fact that once-upon-a-time Latin was deemed the “most proper language,” and therefore the one to emulate.

So there we have it: a language with crazy-ass rules which are indelibly emblazoned in my crazy-ass head.  I’ll tell you right now, though–I’m not so crazy as to boldly go and tell Captain Kirk about that infinitives-thingy.  I learned that lesson in Kindergarten.


Post-script 11/5: This was in the paper this morning–couldn’t resist adding it here. :)


If you have three minutes and want a chuckle, this is the State of the Language Address (okay, a funny poem) by Taylor Mali:


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

31 thoughts on “To Boldly Split an Infinitive…

  1. Laugh out loud funny for anyone who has learned enough grammar to lose sleep, speak up at the wrong time, and write as well as we can without laughing at our own hubris.

    Really enjoyable post.


  2. You are waaay funny and cute! I chuckled over every sentence of this post and secretly wished I had been clever enough to write it. You have a serious wit about you, lady, and as a sister grammar Nazi, I’m here to tell you I love it!

    Enjoying your blog,


  3. In my family, both my mother and grandmother were grammar nazis. Now, as a writer, I thank God for them. Not so much as a kid. Like you, I corrected teachers too. Like yours, they did not like it.

    Did win an award in 12th grade for secretly teaching a new English teacher grammar, however.

    It’s odd – the more I write, the less important all those pile-driven rules seem to be to me.


  4. How nice to read that someone else grew up in the same kind of family. We are all relatively good grammarians in our voices, if not our writing. As to ending a sentence with a prop……I mean preposition, we reply baby, baby.


  5. Wow. This brought back memories. My mother wasn’t an official teacher; she worked for the government (Secret stuff. Hush hush, you know), but she had her own reference library, and was quick to correct us when we attempted to use “broken” English. Loved this post.


  6. I find the whole idea of grammar and the English language quite hilarious and ridiculous. You point out some of the absurdities quite nicely. English is an amalgamated language with English grammar rules are an attempt to take a backwards look at the patchwork and then attempting to create rules for what is there, rife with exceptions, special cases, historical quirks. “To boldly go” I think is a perfect example. Best and only grammar book I’ve ever needed: “Strunk & White”


  7. I, too, loved your post (especially the story of your “if takes the subjunctive” comeback–what a gem!)

    My mother was a high school English teacher, and my father’s father once wrote a grammar textbook (seriously), so our household was like yours–no grammatical error went uncorrected. My mother is a pedant in the extreme when it comes to the English language. For example, she is the only person I know who insists on pronouncing the word “homosexual” in a manner reflecting its correct derivation (the Greek “homo” meaning “same” as opposed to the Latin “homo” meaning “man”). She is delighted when people try to correct her, as this allows her to unleash her well-polished explanation upon them. Sheesh.

    As for infinitive-splitting, my grandfather and mother (surprisingly) both agreed that the rule was purely a stylistic one and should be broken as needed!


  8. As much as I enjoy your eloquent elocutionary skills, I must confess that I had to read your post twice. Since the Hawai’ian Language only has 13 letters I typically get only half of the information at any one time. By the way, split infinitives didn’t come to Hawai’i until 1968. Stay only jokin’wit’ you Babe, Me Kealoha Pumehana, Ko’u ‘Ele Makule


  9. Finally, someone explains that “if I were” business to me – thank you. Now if only I could remember how the subjunctive works in English. And I’m takin gthis post as permission to split infinitives, it just works in English and we are no longer slaves to the prowess of Latin.

    Also, I’m glad that I’m not the only one who took my kindergarten teacher to task. Of course, in my case she was actually right that my brother did not spend $400 on my care bear, so your story’s better!


  10. I share your obsessive commitment to good grammar. Particle sentences and runons must die, but my pettest of pet peeves is “please contact Tiffani or myself if you have any questions.” Would you have someone “contact myself”? Grrrrrr.


  11. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!! As long as there is communication, written and/or spoken, language and the manner in which we use it will change. Evolve. Grow. It can not be static. I have NO rules I follow. Which means I probably broke fifteen writing this statement. And I don’t follow the rules, because sadly, I suck at grammar. Sentence structure. Etc…. And have expressed so myself on occasion. I am thrilled by this post!


  12. 20 years as an English teacher….when I’m in a social situation I gotta hold back those corrections, except with my kids…never for my husband (who does not need a lot of correcting.) I would be thrilled if a food server asked us with whom she should leave the check. I would compliment him/her. When my husband and I were dating I told him that I found him infinitely more attractive due to the good grammar and spelling in his emails. I’m not sure if that made me more attractive to him, but he still married me. Aloha….love the post. I also like your daily appearance in my “In box.” It feels like I’ve found a new friend.


    1. Contrary to his playful comment above, my hubby is also quite capable in his use of “The King’s English”–though there’s also plenty of Pidgin used at home. I’m still bemused by the fact that he drew extra pay for his recognized status as a Bilingual Officer (fluent in English & Pidgin) when he worked in Corrections in Hawai’i… ;)


      1. Are you bilingual (Pidgin & English) also? My human has been in Hawaii for 17 years and still can’t speak a word of Pidgin. She understands when I meow in Pidgin, and can translate written Pidgin easily. But never has a “bruddah” or a “da kine” or a “grind ’em” passed her haole lips. She just can’t seem to form words that way…


        1. Not nearly so fluent as he, but I’ll venture a “yes”… I’m still learning the Hawai’ian vocabulary in the mix (Since FLUENT Pidgin goes well beyond the “broken English” soundbites)… But I have a pretty good ear for the inflection and nuance, and (nerd that I am) I’ve read a shelf-full of Pidgin grammar and Hawai’ian language books… A student, at least. How’s that for a long-winded answer? ;)

          I stay pau now, Brah!


  13. I love this Kana! I must admit I would be put to shame by grammar peoples. However, as a consolation I do actually think “am I ending this sentence incorrectly?” when I am writing or speaking. As a side note, I want to learn better grammar because I can’t think of a better way to exit a losing argument more favorably than correcting someone’s grammar.


    1. Oh yeah, works especially well in situations where you’d like to end the association entirely! ;)

      My ex-husband used to ask me to proof his papers, and then (even though he’d ASKED) sulk and pout and rage for a couple days about how I thought I was smarter than he… (except he would have said “smarter than him”…) Not saying grammar broke the marriage, but it made my eventual Exit more entertaining. ;)


  14. Lovely post! Yes, I believe it is important to know the rules so you can break the rules. If a writer sticks religiously to grammar rules, the result will be stuffy, stilted, and unimaginative_like a technically flawless violinist. But a writer who knows how to effectively sing or paint with words, is one who will delight readers_like the violinist who may not be technically perfect, but whose music throbs with emotion.


  15. Hehee, I feel like I missed a massive chunk of my education when it comes to things like grammar. I just don’t think I was taught all that much – or maybe I’ve forgotten it? – but what I know know has come from fuddling along as I go.

    Funny though; I don’t think its hindered me in any massive way. I have an idea of which rules I can break and which ones I shouldn’t. The ones I don’t know about I’m sure will slap me in the face sooner or later so I can learn about them; if poking my English Language university friends for advice doesn’t do it for me. :)


  16. English being my 3rd language I found this post very useful and funny!! Thank you! I always annoy my English boyfriend with my ‘why’s’, but he’s always patiently explaining me one or another expression or word, bless him :D


  17. Many, many, MANY, too many in fact, years ago I was in 3rd class here in Ireland. 3rd class is when they teach you the names of cities, how to spell six and seven letter words, Celtic mythology as history (amateur historian here so don’t even get me started on that one), and they teach you basic punctuation and grammar rules.

    That’s great except for when your teacher is a published poet, who writes his works in the Irish language. Because of that twit I only learned how to use a comma sort of properly this Summer. I can just about use quotation marks. I overuse those triple full stop things whose name I don’t know but looks like “…” We won’t even get into how bad my grammar can be.

    To make matters worse my entire adopted family are rampant grammar, punctuation and spelling Nazis (does that need a ” ‘ “, see what I mean? I’m doomed!). When I finished the manuscript for my first novel I passed it to my favourite punctuation pixie, it helps to ease the pain that she’s a stunning Russian girl. A 217,000 word book. Half a million punctuation errors. 100,000 grammar errors. And 10,000 of what she described as being “impossible to label.”

    Some of us wish we too could be grammar nazis (with or without the ” ‘ “) but our educations stand against us. ;-)

    P.s. love your blog. And adding you to my blogroll.


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