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