St. Patrick, Snakes, and Split Infinitives

Even if you’re not of Irish ancestry, I’m sure you’ve heard the legend that there are no snakes in Ireland because St. Patrick drove them out. Although my husband swears that his great-great-great-grandfather helped the saint with this chore, the story is just that—a story. There have been no snakes in Ireland since the last Ice Age. 

Legends and myths abound in all aspects of life, including grammar, so last time around we set out on a mission to explode some of the most common ones. You might remember “rules” that you learned in school but maybe haven’t thought about in years. Turns out a lot of them aren’t hard and fast laws; they’re more like guidelines. Today let’s look at the spurious prohibition against splitting infinitives.

First of all, what’s an infinitive? It’s simply the word to plus a verb (action word): to love; to write; to play, etc. In grammatical terms, it is the uninflected form of the verb—that is, it describes the action itself. In these examples, I’ve underlined it:

I’d like to go to the pub for green beer tonight.  

St. Patrick used a shamrock to illustrate the theological concept of the Holy Trinity.

So far, so good. The problem can come up when we want to add some sort of descriptor to the infinitive. If you put that description word or words between the to and the verb, that is a split infinitive:

The attendance at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is expected to more than double.

Some scholars continue to adamantly maintain that St. Patrick had no role in the conversion of Ireland.

There is no way to rewrite the first example to unsplit the infinitive without it sounding strange: The attendance at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is expected more than to double.

In the second example, you could move adamantly: Some scholars continue adamantly to maintain–but that could make it unclear whether adamantly goes with continue or maintain. Or you could go with Some scholars continue to maintain adamantly… That’s not bad, but adamantly has a lot more punch when it comes right before maintain, doesn’t it?

So these are some cases in which you might want to preserve a split infinitive—and again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that.

But getting back to legends and myths: one of the reasons they stand the test of time is that they usually contain at least a kernel of truth. In the case of St. Patrick and the snakes, many historians agree that the story is likely an allegory for the saint’s success in removing what was considered an evil—paganism, represented by the snakes—from Ireland.

The kernel of truth in the “rule” about infinitives is that, even though you can split them, it’s not always a good idea. As with many other topics we’ve covered, such as the use of adjectives and adverbs, you should think carefully about exactly what you want to say, as well as the style and tone of your writing. In more formal writing, it’s generally better to not split infinitives if possible. (See what I just did there? 😊 )

Fortunately, in some cases keeping the infinitive unsplit turns out to be the better option. Here’s a sentence with a split infinitive:

Some people of Irish ancestry are searching for ways to more authentically celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

And with the infinitive unsplit:

Some people of Irish ancestry are searching for ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day more authentically.

Fixing this split infinitive makes for a better sentence because in the original there’s a lot of distance between to and celebrate. Moving more authentically to the end also highlights it more, because the end of a sentence is the position that gets the most emphasis.

Sometimes it just comes down to a matter of which way sounds more natural. Imagine a mother saying this to her teenage daughter on the morning of March 18th, after the latter discovered that some drugstore hair color was not quite as temporary as she had thought:

I told you not to dye your hair green.

That just sounds better than I told you to not dye your hair green, doesn’t it?

So be on the lookout for split infinitives in the wild, and please feel free to comment below with your thoughts on whether they were used effectively!

And no matter your ancestry, happy St. Patrick’s Day! (But no green hair for me, thanks.)

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