If you’re not a close friend of mine or being pressured into reading this off your Facebook feed, then I applaud you for your willingness to gain further knowledge on the intricacies of the oh-so-tricky infinitive. Further to our previous post, here we’ll be digging a bit deeper into this delicate grammatical structure by looking at it in English and some Romance languages!
Infinitives in Western Romance Languages
One of the peculiarities of infinitives in Western Romance languages is that they can be used as nouns. In English, this would require the use of the gerund (-ing).
i. Ver es creer. (Spanish) / Voir c’est croire. (French) / Vedere è credere. (Italian) / Veure és creure. Veire es creire. (Catalan / Occitan) / Seeing is believing. (English – with gerunds)
ii. Vouloir c’est pouvoir. (French) / Querer es poder. (Spanish) / Voler és poder. Voler es poder. (Catalan / Occitan) / Where there’s a will, there’s a way. (English – with nouns)
iii. Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. (French)
Sometimes we can insert the masculine article before the infinitive to make it look even more like a noun. (Example in Spanish: El fumar es perjudicial para la salud.) Some Spanish nouns have their origins in verbs, such as el amanecer, el atardecer, el deber, el ser, el saber, and so on.
What is a Split Infinitive in English?
A split infinitive, as the name suggests, is a full infinitive (with to) in English that includes an adverb in between (e.g., to gracefully accept, to quickly go, to not think).
In the Victorian times, when English grammarians were creating dictionaries and grammar books, they thought they had to follow the prestigious language of the time–Latin–for all matters on grammar, even though Latin and English differ greatly in terms of syntax and grammar.
Whilst it is true that many English grammarians of the 19th century followed the classical languages’ examples when dealing with English grammar (e.g., the we-can’t-end-a-sentence-with-a preposition rule), there is no clear evidence that the rules against the split infinitive came from Latin.
Latin, like many other Indo-European languages, has no two-word infinitive, but one. Even German and Dutch, languages that are closely related to English, don’t have the two-word infinitive paradigm. (When using the infinitive clauses, German and Dutch may use ‘(um) zu’ and ‘(om) te’ respectively before the infinitive, but the preposition itself does not appear in dictionaries as being part of the infinitive like the English ‘to’).
Shakespeare used the split infinitive, as seen in the following passage from Coriolanus, Act I, Scene ii, lines 4-6 (in the words of Aufidius):
‘What ever have been thought on in this state / That could be brought to bodily act ere Rome / Had circumvention?’
The truth is, when it comes to English grammar, it greatly depends on what spelling convention or style guide you follow, as there is no official governing body of the language like the Royal Spanish Academy for Spanish or the French Academy for French. Many reputable dictionaries of English such as the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and the Oxford Dictionaries label the ‘rule’ against the split infinitive as unfounded.
Consider the following examples:
- He asked me to quickly tell him the problem.
- He asked me quickly to tell him the problem.
- He asked me to tell him the problem quickly.
Are they the same? Are you against the split infinitive? Leave us a comment!