To boldly split an infinitive

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Split opinion? Correcting poor grammar has been part of a teacher’s role for decades but academics are suggesting some rules might be relaxed (Image: Adobe Stock)

The split infinitive has been a bone of contention in academic circles for years.

Grammar experts have long argued that splitting an infinitive – as in the famous Star Trek line, “to boldly go” – should be avoided at all costs. Others have taken a more relaxed approach.

But a new study has found that split infinitives are now in such common usage that they have become part of everyday language. In other words, teachers no longer need to advise pupils against writing phrases like “to just go”, “to actually get” or “to really want”.

Language experts at Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press amassed what they claim is the largest ever public collection of transcribed British conversations.

The academics then analysed the collection, which comprised 11.5 million words of spontaneous everyday conversations recorded by people on their SmartPhones between 2012 and 2016. The chats included a father and daughter talking in the car, students drinking in their halls of residence and grandparents visiting their family for the day.

The study revealed that the use of the split infinitive – where the word “to” and the verb are separated by an intervening word, usually an adverb – has nearly tripled over the last three decades. It rose from a mere 44 words per million in the early 1990s to 117 per million between 2012 and 2016.

Another development is the use of the word “like” at the beginning of a sentence. This increased from 160 per million sentences in the 1990s to 625 per million sentences between 2012 and 2016.

Dr Claire Dembry, principal research manager at Cambridge University Press, highlighted the importance of keeping up with language changes.

“Learners of English deserve to be taught in a way which is informed by the most up-to-date research into how the language is used in the real world,” said Dr Dembry. “The rise of the split infinitive is just one example of language phenomena which some commentators might not like, but which are becoming a normal part of everyday speech. Language teaching should reflect these changes.”

Project leader Professor Tony McEnery, from Lancaster University, said: “Never before has it been possible to compare millions of words of spoken English across decades in this way.

“This will help linguists to understand better the changing nature of English speech and help a new generation of learners of English in the modern world.”


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