Split infinitives: Not wrong, sometimes preferable

I saw a generalization early this morning that got my dander up. The writer stated that “almost every style guide” says to avoid the split infinitive. To put it bluntly, that’s wrong; it’s a misrepresentation of what they actually say. That the post went on to explain and clarify doesn’t much matter when what people will remember is that initial statement: “Almost every style guide” says not to use it.

I’ve looked up “split infinitive” in The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago, the style guide I use) and on the website for AP, and then I checked Buzzfeed for good measure. After that, I went to the usage guides: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Garner’s Modern English Usage, Dreyer’s English (Dreyer), Words into Type, and Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

Not one of these sources says that a split infinitive is to be avoided at all times. In fact, every one of them says that not only is the construction grammatically correct, but it is also preferable to performing syntactical gyrations. There’s no reason to avoid using it when that usage is the clearest and changing it would alter the intended meaning of the sentence.

Furthermore, I’ll note here that the APA style manual, 7th edition, does not even mention split infinitives. As I said to someone in a Slack chat earlier, “APA does not recognize this as a problem.” (Yes, I was being snarky. Imagine that. Thank you to my colleagues DeAnna Burghart and James Fraleigh for being my reference checkers.) Rather, the manual refers users to “a trusted grammar reference” for questions about issues not covered. Which reference? That’s users’ choice.

The only place one might routinely consider avoiding the split infinitive is in the most formal writing, where the most readers are likely to think poorly of its presence (because they’re not grammarians, obviously). Annoying one’s intended audience is seldom if ever the best option.

I will quote only one source here, that being Chicago:

“Although from about 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate the to from the principal verb.” (Chicago 17th ed., 5.108)

“If the adverb bears the emphasis in a phrase {to boldly go} {to strongly favor}, the split infinitive is justified and often even necessary. . . . Recasting a sentence just to eliminate a split infinitive or to avoid splitting the infinitive can alter the nuance or meaning of the sentence.” (5.171)

The style guide most used by journalists, the venerated AP text, changed its guidance in 2019 in an admission that the split infinitive can aid comprehension and readability.

Of the usage guides, I will quote only from Dreyer, and that itself is a quote from Raymond Chandler:

“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.” (Dreyer, 1st ed., p. 11)

I can say without reservation that we are free to confidently split infinitives without fear of repercussions.

When style guides conflict

And they do, quite often.

My current project uses APA (also called, colloquially, “science”) style. Now I’m a CMoS gal, and I know AP pretty well, but even when I had to write reference papers in APA style for my most recent degree work, I didn’t run up against this particular guideline that’s driving me bats.

More bats than usual, that is. Continue reading “When style guides conflict”

One Space or Two? Does It Really Matter?

As a pragmatist, I shake my head at the ongoing “debate” over how many spaces to use after terminal (or “sentence”) punctuation. Those of us who learned typing (as on a typewriter) as opposed to word processing generally learned to press the space bar twice after a period or a colon. Times change, and spacing changes too. These days, it’s generally accepted that one space is all you need. I’m continually amazed at the anguish evinced by those who cling to the old ways, as if being asked to use only one space were akin to being asked to cut off their dominant hand.

Really? Is it all that big a deal?

I don’t see it. I honestly don’t. Use two spaces if that’s what you want to do. Hell, use five if it makes you happy. The only time you’ll run into trouble is if and when your work goes to an editor to be prepped for publication. You’ll need to be ready for that editor to remove all the extra spaces, because three of the four most commonly used style guides in the US—the Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Language Association style guide, and the Associated Press style guide—all specify one space following terminal punctuation. (The fourth major guide, that of the American Psychological Association, specifies two spaces. However, I will point out that for most writers looking to publish fiction or nonfiction, that won’t be the style guide in play.) If that editor is working for a publishing house, I feel secure in stating that there won’t be any negotiating on this point.

“But Karen, I’m an indie author and I’m self-publishing!” Hooray for you. If you contract with an editor (as I hope you will), you need to be prepared for that editor to ask (or perhaps tell) you what style guide will be used. It’s in an editor’s sphere of influence, as it were. And perhaps you and that editor can agree that your personal “house style” will be two spaces after terminal punctuation. Bully for you both.

The history of spacing is interesting, to be sure. Movable type. Typewriters. Word processors. Fixed-space fonts versus variable-width ones. That’s all interesting, yes. Ultimately, however, for my job as a copyeditor, none of it matters. The why’s don’t matter. The how’s don’t matter. What matters is what the style guide says is to be done. I don’t get paid to agree with the decision. I get paid to make the text fall into line with the style guide. Whether I’d be amenable to the two-spaces question remains to be seen, and depends a lot on the author’s attitude. Someone who blusters in and demands that they be left or else is someone I’d prefer not to deal with, thanks. I prefer the look of one space in this day of variable-width fonts and automatic kerning and all those other wonderful technological advancements, and apparently I’m far from being in the minority on that. I happen to have three pretty important authorities on my side. Bully for me. All it means is that I agree with what those authorities have to say on the matter, and that I will cite them whenever someone asks the oft-repeated question.

There’s no good reason for it, nor is there a good reason against it. It’s not a moral decision. It’s a stylistic one, and one that is addressed in every major style guide in use today. It’s about appearance on the page or the screen, not about personal preference or how you were taught in 1980. It’s about guidelines (not rules, notice—guidelines). There is no rule. There are, however, multiple guidelines, most of which are in agreement.

So you all go ahead and debate this point however you like. I know what my job is, and I know how to do it well. If that makes me someone you don’t want to work with, that’s perfectly all right with me. I’m not here to make your life miserable; I’m here to whip your writing into shape, make sure it’s grammatically and syntactically correct in whatever way is required by the style and the intended audience, and see that the final product adheres to an accepted style guide (whichever one we agree to use), perhaps with a few minor “house style” exceptions. That’s what I’m paid to do.

And I might even let you have your two spaces—if you comport yourself like the professional you want to be.