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“Try to never split an infinitive”

April 19, 2011

When I was about ten years old, my dad bought a t-shirt with that wildly humorous quip on the front. Needless to say, I had to ask what it meant. (Click here if you’re still not sure).

That was before I ever studied French or Latin. Before I found out that you can’t split an infinitive in French or Latin, because it’s one word. Tricky, huh?

What I’ve come to realise since then, is that this is a style issue. Splitting an infinitive is not actually wrong. It’s just that over the life of the English language, this convention became widely accepted.

Another example featured in the same range of t-shirts: ‘prepositions are words you shouldn’t end sentences with’. (Don’t ask me how I remember this crap).

Again, there’s no real reason why this became a rule. Granted, sometimes it sounds a little ugly, but at other times, it sounds silly to avoid it. Seriously, how many people ask you ‘with whom are you going to the party?’.

That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in rules. I just favour the hard and fast rules, such as where apostrophes belong. (I have an apostrophe jar, similar in function to a swear jar. For my team, obviously – not for me).

Spelling can be tricky too. Some people spell it ‘focused’ and others ‘focussed’ – spellcheck approves either.

But the past tense of ‘to lead’ is by no means ‘lead’. That’s a base metal. Just because it sounds the same as ‘led’, doesn’t mean it’s spelt that way. I can’t believe how many times otherwise literate people get this wrong.

These issues are covered in a grammar and style training manual I created for my company, and it’s heartening to see how enthusiastically people respond:  even people with comms degrees find much of it is new to them. Indeed, I still find exciting new tips from Elements of Style when I dip into it.

I don’t set myself up as an expert. It’s just that I have taken an interest in these things and would like to share them. I still have to look stuff up (thanks, internet!). I still make mistakes. But the key is to pay attention, do a bit of research and ask other people who know more.

In a world where poor grammar, spelling and expression are increasingly common, it’s tempting to call me old-fashioned.

But I suspect there are a lot of decision-makers who care about these things as much as me. And if you can avoid diverting their attention with your errors, you have a much higher chance of your real message being heard.

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5 Comments
  1. Or as my dad used to misquote Churchill: “This is the sort of pedantry up with which I will not put.”
    While I was trying to work out who had originally said that, I found this site: http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html
    think you will like it.

  2. Kyahn permalink

    My pet hate is people who don’t know when to use you’re instead of your. It’s such a common mistake, I even saw it on a television commercial the other night – albeit a dodgy debt consolidation ad.

  3. Or people who use ‘then’ for comparisons. “Mine is better then yours”. Suprisingly common.

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