To Infinitives And Beyond – The One Thing Grammar Nazis Might Consider Leaving Alone

 

Grammar Is One Thing. Spelling Is A Different Matter.

Grammar Is One Thing. Spelling Is A Different Matter.

There’s nothing really wrong with grammar nazis’ intentions. The constant tug of war between the people who want to throw out the rules and the ones who take them far too seriously is good for the English language. It keeps it healthy. Plus everyone enjoys watching a good old chatroom fight on the internet.

Personally, I don’t fall into either camp. The grammatical rules of English are labyrinthine and I don’t pretend to know even a significant fraction of them. The ones I do know, I often break deliberately for effect. I’m also prone to using the Oxford Comma. One thing I do know though is this. Correct grammar is not necessarily synonymous with good writing.

Take the following sentence : “The the the the the the”. Technically, it is grammatically correct. It’s fucking nonsense though. In fact, if you look back at the history of grammar, quite a lot of it is fucking nonsense. And the biggest nonsense of all is the objection to split infinitives.

When the rules of English grammar were formulated, they were formulated by classical scholars. These men, being classical scholars, adored Latin. They thought Latin was beautiful, perfect language rather than the clunky awkward monstrosity that it actually is. It’s a dead language for a reason, and even most Romans usually talked Greek to each other because they were Italian at the end of day and it’s difficult to have a heated argument when you’re wrestling with Case and Declensions.

But Dr Johnson et al decided that, as infinitives are not split in Latin, then they should never be split in English either. Which is all fine and dandy until you consider that the infinitive the Grammar Nazis, past and present, don’t want us to split is the Present Active. To Do, To Love, To Go and suchlike. And in Latin, these are all single words. Laudare- To Praise, Amare- To Love etc. So the reason they are never split is because, being single words, you can’t split them. Not in the same way at any rate.

In other words, the “don’t split infinitives” rule is a result of 17th Century intellectual snobbery. It also conveniently ignores the fact that it was perfectly acceptable in classical Latin poetry to use tmesis to split infinitives in order to suggest a visual image. Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” splits the word “Circumdare” – To Surround, so that it becomes “Circum virum dant” –they surround the man. The man being in the middle and surrounded by the split infinitive. No, I don’t really get the point of it either.

One point I do get though, is that the original purpose of English grammar was not to allow people to bludgeon other people into submission online with knowledge that they very often only acquired the previous day. The original purpose of English grammar was to establish clarity in a language that, despite its beauty and expressive ability, is essentially just a mish mash of lots of other languages.

The Anomaly Has Turned Into A Giant Needle And Thread Hanging In Space? Make It Sew, Number One.

The Anomaly Has Turned Into A Giant Needle And Thread Hanging In Space? Make It Sew, Number One.

Take what is probably the most famous split infinitive of all time. “To boldly go where no man has gone before”. Firstly, if you can’t figure out that “to boldly go” means the same as “to go boldly”, then you are a fucking moron. Secondly, “to boldly go” just sounds better. “to go boldly” kind of dissipates and sounds like a euphemism for a tactical retreat. “To boldly go” sounds like you’re off to kick someone’s head in that really deserves it.

Surely even the most heartless grammar nazi wouldn’t rob the Star Trek fans of the immortal words of James T Kirk? Or the later, more wishy washy and politically correct version from the lips of Jean Luc Picard? Mind you, Picard was supposed to be French, and French infinitives are all single words too. Which is probably why Gene Roddenberry picked the most British actor he could find to play him.  One who’d done a great deal of Shakespeare. A playwright from a time when people cared more about a good story than about rules.

© Copyright Michael Grimes 2013

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About thedailygrime

At that awkward age - too young to be a grumpy old man, but just acerbic and downtrodden enough to have an opinion. Read it here.

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