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Splitsville

Your seventh-grade English teacher told you never to split an infinitive: no adverb between “to” and a verb.

Never mind that the Starship Enterprise sought to boldly go where no man had gone before: You, an ordinary kid, had to obey the laws of grammar and physics alike.

No one ever explained that the split-infinitive ban originated with medieval grammarians who wanted English to be more like Latin or Old French.

That medieval origin is one reason today’s style guides have relaxed the rule. In 1983, for example, the Chicago Manual of Style declared the nation’s citizens free to split infinitives to make a sentence clearer.

Some judges are also on board. One federal judge has even cited the world’s most famous split infinitive, reversing an earlier opinion “[r]ather than to boldly go where no court within the Second Circuit has gone before.”1

With these authorities in tow, you could choose to avoid such vague constructions as “he agreed promptly to settle the lawsuit once he received our offer.” Which did he do fast: the agreeing or the settling?

But don’t be too quick to taunt the traditionalists by changing this sentence to “he agreed to promptly settle the lawsuit.” Our profession attracts at least as many linguistic purists as Star Trek-quoting visionaries.

Those purists will be all too happy to redline your beloved to promptly settle. After all, in legal circles, the appearance of a grammatical error can be worse than a real one: By splitting an infinitive, you may win the clarity battle but lose the persuasion war.

If you’re still willing to rock the boat, or perhaps to gently rock the boat, let me give you some ballast for the pro-splitting side:

First, ask why litigators typically write “plaintiff failed to properly allege damages” rather than “plaintiff failed properly to allege damages.”

Second, ask your anti-splitting colleagues to un-split this one:

“We expect the stock price to more than double this quarter.”

Give up? Don’t feel bad: Some splits are just meant to be.

_____

  1. Amadi v. United States, 220 F.R.D. 190, 192-93 (N.D.N.Y. 2003).

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