On the morning of Feb. 11, Orange County residents may have heard a blood-curdling scream — the kind that leaves no doubt that a horrible atrocity has been committed.
I’m writing today to confess: I’m the perp. My victim’s name is Barbara. My crime was writing this sentence, “Even professionals have to look these things up” (Re. The truth about hyphens, Feb. 11).
“You do that thing that raises the hair on the back of my neck,” Barbara wrote. “You split an infinitive! Excuse me just a minute while I walk out to the patio just off my office space and scream!”
My atrocities didn’t end there. “Look above when I quote your offense of splitting the infinitive and you will see that you committed that old rule about ending a sentence with a preposition.”
Let’s consider these offenses separately.
First, here’s how Fowler’s Modern English Usage explains the concept of the split infinitive: “The base form of an infinitive is shown in ‘to love,’ in which the verbal part is preceded by the particle ‘to.’ When such a combination is severed or ‘split’ by the insertion of an adverb or adverbial phrase (e.g. ‘to madly love,’ ‘to really and truly love,’), or other word or words, the construction is called a split infinitive.”
I do this a lot, just not in the sentence that made Barbara scream. In “to look these things up,” the particle “to” and the base form of the verb “look” aren’t separated. So the split she must have meant was the insertion of “these things” between “look” and “up.”
In this sentence, “to look up” is something called a phrasal verb, which is usually a verb-plus-preposition combo in which the preposition changes the meaning of the verb and is therefore integral to it.
For example, “to chalk” is different from “to chalk up,” making the latter a phrasal verb. There’s no rule against breaking up a phrasal verb, as in “chalk it up to experience.”
But had I actually “split” my infinitive, would that mean I broke a grammar rule? Nope. According to every expert under the sun, from Strunk and White to the Chicago Manual of Style to Fowler’s to the American Heritage Dictionary, there is no rule against splitting infinitives.
“No absolute taboo should be placed on the use of simple adverbs between the particle ‘to’ and the verbal part of the infinitive,” “Fowler’s” writes.
The idea that you should never split an infinitive is “superstition,” says Garner’s Modern American Usage.
And here’s Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style: “Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does. ‘I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.”
Some experts go further, saying there’s no such thing as a split infinitive: “The term is actually a misnomer, as ‘to’ is only an appurtenance of the infinitive, which is the uninflected form of the verb,” writes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.
As for ending my sentence with a preposition — well, that’s another myth.
“The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English. It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it is a mistake.” — Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.
“Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end, sometimes it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else.” — The Elements of Style
“Superstition,” Garner’s Modern American Usage calls it: “Good writers don’t hesitate to end their sentences with prepositions if doing so results in phrasing that seems natural.”
Besides, “up” is really an adverb. Only in rare cases like “up the river” is it a preposition. And in “to look up,” it’s really part of the phrasal verb, anyway.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.