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A Word, Please: One good scream deserves a rebuttal

June 17, 2012|By June Casagrande

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.”

“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!”

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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.

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