I was taught English by a strict traditionalist. She taught me what an infinitive was and warned me that I should never, ever, ever split one.
If you don’t know what an infinitive is, don’t worry. I won’t bore you with examples, because they really don’t matter. It turns out that my high school English teacher might have been wasting her energy on this point. When I studied editing, I learned that avoiding split infinitives was just some rule that a seventeenth-century poet (I think it was John Dryden) thought up because he had a thing about Latin, and in Latin infinitives can’t be split.
Apparently avoiding splitting infinitives has nothing to do with how clever you are (sadly, because avoiding splitting infinitives used to make me feel quite clever). The truth is that sometimes a sentence sounds awkward when you split an infinitive, and sometimes it sounds awkward when you don’t. Sometimes the placement of the adverb affects your meaning. So now I split to my heart’s content if it improves the clarity and flow of my prose – and when the ghost of my English teacher comes back to haunt me, I do my best to ignore it. There’s some guilty pleasure in that …
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.