Closing the split over infinitives

November 04, 1998|By Knight Ridder/Tribune

Inhibited writers and cowering English students can relax.

It is now officially safe to selectively split infinitives. The newest "A Dictionary of Modern American Usage" from the prestigious Oxford University Press says so.

Some of the nation's sterner English teachers -- you know who they are -- might be appalled, but most grammar observers -- including William Safire -- seem to accept it.

Zarina Hock, managing editor for books at the 90,000-member National Council of Teachers of English, says: "Our house style allows it" already.

"Go ahead and split 'em," says Dennis Baron, head of the English department at the University of Illinois.

After all, Star Trekkers were not the first, nor the last, "to boldly go." "If you say 'boldly to go,' it just doesn't work," notes Frank Abate, editor-in-chief for Oxford's U.S. dictionaries.

"It still irks me," says Yale English Professor Leslie Brisman. "There's still a different standard between elegant speech and inelegant speech," he says. "If somebody announced tomorrow it's OK to eat with both hands, it doesn't mean you'll be on your best behavior if you do it."

The rule on infinitives dates to Latin, but never naturally applied to English, says Jeffrey McQuain, a Maryland-based language expert who researches for Safire. "The infinitive in Latin is a single word and cannot be split," he explains.

Pub Date: 11/04/98

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