Essential writing skills: Weird Al is right to use a split infinitive

I couldn’t stop laughing at this week’s furore over Weird Al Yankovich supposedly having an ‘error’ in a song about grammar errors. Weird Al apparently included a split infinitive in the lyrics.

Oh, the (apparent) irony. Social media went nuts. Well, I beg to differ. And so, I think, would Captain James T. Kirk. Gene Roddenberry anyway.

A split infinitive is where the infinitive marker (‘to’) and the verb (‘go’) are divided by another word – let’s say, ‘boldly’. Thus we could say ‘to boldly go’, rather than ‘to go boldly’. It’s technically ambiguous – what you are doing is making ‘boldly’ into the verb. Are you saying they boldly? Or that they go? See what I mean.

That prompted a furore of its own in the mid-1960s, when Roddenberry first launched that particular phrase upon the world.

Except that split infinitives were upheld as grammatically OK – even adding to the power of a sentence – in the right context, as early as 1948. In the strictest and most retentive sense, it’s not correct. But English is a constantly evolving language, and in general practical usage – back more than 60 years now – it’s been fine to split the infinitive. And we do, a lot. Along with starting sentences with conjunctions…

Weird Al, in short, got it right. But then, doesn’t he always? The guy’s a genius. And now…pay attention…

Some important lessons there, grammar-wise. I wish my high school English teacher had been as entertaining.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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9 comments on “Essential writing skills: Weird Al is right to use a split infinitive

  1. Weird Al is a national treasure. How dare anyone criticize him. Thank you for sticking up for him. Weird Al for President.

    Feel free to stop by the website of a fellow Weird Al fan:

    http://www.bookshelfbattle.com

  2. jjspina says:

    Loved this Weird Al song. He is quite the clever one! This should be used in schools to teach proper English in a fun way.

    Thank you for sharing. Matthew.

    • All his stuff is good…he nails the essence of it. I particularly liked his ‘White and Nerdy’ number – not least because I thought ‘Who’s that guy at the back doing that weird dance?’ – and then suddenly realised it was Donny Osmond.

  3. I love this song but something tells me that Weird Al put that sentence in just to troll everyone. Especially as it comes in at the end of the song where most people would notice it.

  4. jsherwin2013 says:

    Matthew: I loved the song and the visuals! I wish this was around when I was teaching grammar thirty years ago. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Dan says:

    I concur. As Steven Pinker points out, the rule against split infinitives was an arbitrary one created by ruling classes in thrall to Latin – where such a crime isn’t possible

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