October 2, 2017

So, we no longer have to awkwardly adjust our writing for split-infinitive avoidance


An example of a cleft chin, not to be confused with a cleft infinitive.

I know what you’re thinking: I just learned what a split infinitive is, and now you’re telling me I don’t have to actually care?

OK, maybe I don’t know what you’re thinking. But if you’re as big a nerd as I am, surely you’re absolutely agog at the news that split infinitives are making a comeback (from their heyday back in the thirteenth century). So say researchers at Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press, who performed the analysis you never knew anyone needed, cataloguing the frequency with which people use split infinitives in normal conversation.

As the Guardian reported last week, with altogether too few split infinitives, the rules of grammar have WAIT I HAVEN’T FULLY EXPLAINED TO YOU WHAT A SPLIT INFINITIVE IS.

A split infinitive, known more dashingly as a cleft infinitive, occurs when a word or phrase (usually an adverb, those pesky fucks) comes between the word to and the bare infinitive — that is, the uninflected citation form of the verb. The infinitive is literally split. “To boldly go” is a very famous split infinitive, as the Guardian points out. To give you another example, no one is really sure why we’ve been told to not split an infinitive. (See what I did there?)

Now that our lesson is complete, back to the story at hand: Having collected hours of data from the smartphones of 672 individuals (don’t worry — they asked permission first) between 2012 and 2016, the researchers created the Spoken British National Corpus, the largest public collection ever assembled of transcribed British conversations. They then collated all 11.5 million words, and found that the current rate of split infinitives is 117 per million — a dramatic increase from 44 per million measured back in the early nineties. The increase is so dramatic, in fact, that the researchers even suggest teachers stop correcting students who use split infinitives, as Camilla Turner reports in the Telegraph. As Claire Dembry, the principal research manager at Cambridge University Press and one of the SBNC’s creators, explains, “The rise of the split infinitive is just one example of language phenomena which… are becoming a normal part of everyday speech…. language teaching should reflect these changes.”

We just schooled you! In grammar. Here at this school, I think?

So split infinitives are almost thrice as common in British speech now compared to thirty years ago. Big whoop. Like that means they’re somehow magically, instantly grammatically correct? [Did we mention that the researchers also told teachers to stop correcting students who begin sentences with “so” and “like”? Because they did.]

Yes, actually — it does, because oh my god language is just the coolest. When a new form of language becomes predominant across large swaths of the population, the rules of grammar change with it. As words, and how we use them, change, so too should the rules we apply to them.

Robbie Love, a PhD student at Lancaster University involved with the study, puts it best. He told the Telegraph that he knows this new study will spark debate among grammarians:

“It is a big debate between people who think language is a set of rules and you should resist change,” he said. “They will say that in order to teach language you need a set of rules.

“But laws get updated to reflect changes in society. Language is similar in the sense that times move on and things change, there is no point complaining and language is constantly changing.”

And lest you think there’s no real-world application to this nerdy bullshit, updates to grammar have an impact far beyond just pissing off your seventh-grade English teacher. These changes will ultimately make their way into textbooks, impacting students of English all over the place. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Just don’t start dangling your modifiers all over the place, people. We’re fluid about language, not goddamn obscene.




Susan Rella is the managing editor at Melville House, and a former bookseller.