Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Split Infinitives. I Can't Even. Macken.

Episode Summary

893. You may be surprised by the origin of the split infinitive "rule" and by the times they are OK...or even necessary! Also, we look at slang phrases that drop whole grammatical elements and how they reinforce that in-group/out-group feeling of slang.

Episode Notes

893. You may be surprised by the origin of the split infinitive "rule" and by the times they are OK...or even necessary! Also, we look at slang phrases that drop whole grammatical elements and how they reinforce that in-group/out-group feeling of slang.

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff.

Today, we're going to talk about split infinitives and missing words in slang.

Split Infinitives

When adults are ambushed with the concept of grammar, for example, when they meet someone who goes by the name Grammar Girl, they often reach into the depths of their grade-school memories and come up with something along the lines of “Don’t split infinitives, right?”

Indeed. Splitting infinitives is a grammar topic, but the “rule” you may have learned against splitting infinitives isn’t as hard-and-fast as you might imagine.

Infinitives are the two-word forms of verbs such as to read, to write, and to illustrate.

What Is a Split Infinitive?

If you want to remember what a split infinitive is, just remember what might be the most famous example: Star Trek’s "to boldly go where no one has gone before." "To boldly go" is a split infinitive. "Boldly"splits "to go." When you split an infinitive, you put something (usually an adverb) between the two parts:

The Origin of the Split Infinitive Rule

The idea that you shouldn’t put an adverb in the middle of an infinitive was mentioned earlier but was most prominently introduced by Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury, in his 1864 book "The Queen’s English."

Alford didn’t state it a rule though. Instead, in response to a correspondent who liked phrases such as “to scientifically illustrate,” he said he saw “no good reason” to split the infinitive. One reason Alford gave for his belief was that nobody was doing it (He wrote, “. . . this practice is entirely unknown to English speakers and writers.”), but the Oxford English Dictionary disagrees, reporting that split infinitives were widespread at the time.

In fact, many respected writers, both before and after Alford’s time, have employed split infinitives, including Thomas Cromwell, Daniel Defoe, Lord Byron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Gaskell, Benjamin Franklin, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The Fowler Brothers on the Split Infinitive Rule

From this shaky start, Alford’s opinion about split infinitives somehow made its way into the general consciousness and English school books, and it was taught as a rule to generations of children—and journalists, according the Fowler brothers, authors of the popular and enduring 1907 style guide "The King’s English." Although the Fowlers found the split infinitive “ugly,” they nevertheless felt that prohibitions had gone too far. They wrote, “The ‘split’ infinitive has taken such hold upon the consciences of journalists that, instead of warning the novice against splitting his infinitives, we must warn him against the curious superstition that the splitting or not splitting makes the difference between a good and a bad writer.”

Strunk & White on the Split Infinitive Rule

The rule never stuck with experts. Although I hesitate to say it is impossible to find a credible grammar book that wholeheartedly recommends against split infinitives, I have never seen or heard of such a book. Even The Elements of Style (beloved by the public but often disparaged by modern experts for being overly prescriptive) does not recommend against split infinitives, but instead takes a practical approach: “Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does. [For example] ‘I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.’ The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear, the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible.”

Split Infinitives in Formal Writing

Even though early objectors claimed that split infinitives were the currency of the uneducated, a 2010 study by Moisés D. Perales-Escudero from the University of Michigan found that some split infinitives are common in formal situations: for example, the phrase "to better understand" commonly appears in academic, magazine, and newspaper writing.

Sometimes You Can Avoid a Split Infinitive

Some split infinitives have become set phrases in English, such as Star Trek’s “to boldly go,” meaning that “to go boldly” would sound odd. In the case of a typical split infinitive, though, a writer can usually move the intervening words without much offense: “I’m going to generously frost these cupcakes,” becomes “I’m going to frost these cupcakes generously.”

In less common instances, moving the adverb makes the sentence awkward: “I want to quickly stop at the bank” becomes “I want to stop at the bank quickly.” (A more natural-sounding choice would be “I want to stop at the bank for a minute.”)

In some cases, moving the adverb can also change the meaning: “I want to really hit this one out of the park,” means you want the ball to go as far as possible, but “I really want to hit this one out of the park,” conveys more of a sense of determination than a commentary on actual distance the ball will fly.

Finally, some sentences require a split infinitive: for example, in a 2004 Language Log post, Arnold Zwicky provides an instance in which a writer must split an infinitive: “. . . he expects the staff size to more than double within two years.” You can’t move “more than” anywhere else in that sentence without a major rewrite.

Should You Avoid Splitting Infinitives?

When faced with the clear lack of evidence that splitting infinitives is wrong, but also faced with the almost knee-jerk reaction that is common in the general population— “Split infinitives? Wrong!” (or the vague notion “I’m not sure what split infinitives are, but I think I heard they are wrong,”)—what’s a modern writer to do?

The only logical reason to avoid splitting infinitives is that there are still a lot of people who mistakenly think it is wrong. If you write from a position of power, split your infinitives as much as you want. Be guided by the sound and flow of your sentence. On the other hand, if you have to please others or avoid complaints, it’s safer to avoid splitting infinitives. There’s no reason to deliberately split infinitives when you know it’s going to upset people.

I wrote that segment and it originally appeared in OfficePro Magazine, a publication of the International Association of Administrative Professionals.

This next piece from Isabelle Burke, a research follow of Linguistics at Monash University, describes a really interesting way that some slang phrases lose words, and also reminded me of the 1957 song by Sam Cooke, "Darlin' you send me."

Some slang phrases resemble ripped jeans – not only do they rapidly ping-pong in and out of fashion, but they appear to have several important chunks missing. But there’s no need for distress (unlike the denim) – these grammatical slots have been left blank intentionally. 

Take the phrase “is sending me,” for example. 

If you’re unfamiliar with this one (for example, “that text is sending me” or “you’re sending me”), it’s used as an expression of amusement in response to something funny, although some definitions broaden beyond the Urban Dictionary definition to include a reading “to delight, or thrill.”

In Standard English, the verb “send” requires not only a direct object (for instance, “me”), but also a complement, which is often indicated by a prepositional phrase (such as “to the supermarket”) – generally, you send something somewhere. This complement could also be an adjective (“it’s sending me crazy”), but whatever its word class, it does need to bother to show up. But in the slang context, the complement is conspicuous in its absence.

A similar phrase, “I can’t even,” is probably now reaching the status of “that old millennial chestnut.” Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch has vividly dubbed this as “stylised verbal incoherence mirroring emotional incoherence” – a phrase that indicates speechlessness from strong emotion. The speaker is understood to be too overwhelmed to provide the main verb that accompanies auxiliary verbs such as “can.” This has spawned several related phrases, such as “I have lost the ability to can.”

The effect of this on the formerly humble auxiliary verb "can" has been extraordinary – like some miracle drug cure, the power of internet-speak slang has rapidly restored many of the grammatical abilities it had centuries ago.

Now, like main verbs, it can occur in non-finite form as an infinitive after "to" (“I have lost the ability to can), and even take direct objects (“I can piano”). I once (unwisely) chose this verb to demonstrate auxiliaries to an undergraduate syntax class – and quickly learned of its new abilities.

This is what I most like about slang – its ability to insouciantly sidestep seemingly inviolable rules of grammar. 

“Missing bits” aren’t the exclusive province of slightly-dated internet slang, either. Both Australian and New Zealand English also use slang expressions with missing standards of comparison, as in the classic Kiwi expression “sweet as.” 

This once showed remarkable productivity, with a range of adjectives (“easy as,” “funny as,” and “big as”), and adverbs (“it worked sweet as”), as linguists Laurie and Winifred Bauer have noted. 

Elliptical slang phrases go back further than this, too, such as in the classic 1940s Australian and New Zealand expression of annoyance: “wouldn’t it!” 

A wealth of expressions could hide in this absence – “rot your socks,” “rip you,” “make you sick,” “make you spit tacks,” but are shuttered off by “stylised verbal incoherence,” in the style of “can’t even.” 

Why do slang expressions omit major grammatical components? It certainly makes them more eye-catching – but it may also revolve around the in-group/out-group function that slang carries. 

Only members of your select gang can “fill in the blanks” – and you signal your knowledge of those blanks by using these expressions.

That segment was written by Isabelle Burke, a research follow of Linguistics at Monash University, and appears here in abbreviated form through a Creative Commons license and with permission. You can find the full original article at


And if, like me, halfway through that segment, you wondered "Why do we call an old saying" and "old chestnut," The Online Etymology Dictionary has the answer. The entry says the slang sense meaning a 'venerate joke or story' can be traced back to a melodrama called "The Broken Sword" published in 1816 in which a character repeatedly tells a story about a chestnut tree.

Finally, I have a familect story.

"Hi there. I really enjoy your podcast, so I thank you so much for it. I just have a familect I wanted to share. I've got four young kids, and this is started by my second, who is a boy, and he's six years old. Sometimes we eat macaroni and cheese, and we were serving him some, and he had had a first helping, and then he asked for another helping, and he wanted it on his macken, and we didn't really understand what he meant, but he was referring to the residue of cheese that was left on his plate from the mac & cheese, and so I guess you got macken from the mac & cheese, and we've decided that's spelled m-a-c-k-e-n, and we refer to the macken often when we have mac & cheese. Thank you."

Thank YOU. I will think of that now when I eat mac & cheese. If you want to share the story of your familect, a family dialect or a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL, and I might play it on the show.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my editor Adam Cecil, and my audio engineer Nathan Semes, who's looking forward to a trip in October to see his fiancé in Germany. Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, and our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. You can find me on Twitter and YouTube as @GrammarGirl. That's all. Thanks for listening.