Infinitives.

Bacon burgers and tea with milk

by Annie Wei-Yu Kan

You know what an infinitive is, right?

So many people will go on about how split infinitives are bad but don’t actually know what an infinitive is. They will tell you that the to boldly go from Star Trek is disgusting, awful, uneducated English. Never mind that it’s been good enough for two generations of high-IQ nerds with PhDs. But if you ask the people who condemn it what an infinitive is or why it’s called an infinitive, they probably won’t get it right.

If they did know what infinitives are and something about their history in English, they wouldn’t say split infinitives are the grammatical equivalent of cola-marinated steak with peppermint sauce.

Actually, split infinitives are more like tea with milk. Specifically tea with milk put in the cup before you pour the tea. Did you know that some people in England will almost get into a fight over whether to put the milk in the cup before or after the tea? But I’ll get back to that. First, let’s make sure you really know what an infinitive is.

As you know, because I’ve already told you, and so has a certain vulgarian who alternates with me on the Nasty Guide to Nice Writing, the heart of most sentences is a conjugated verb. It’s the meat patty in the hamburger of the clause. I’ve already told you that you can have a coherent sentence without a verb. But in any clause, you will have a subject and one finite inflected verb.

No, not infected. Good grief! Why did I divorce Dirk if I’m going to have to put up with comments like that anyway? Inflected with an l! The main verb in a clause is conjugated, which means it has been modified to show who or what is doing it and when it’s done. I do it, he does it, they did it. That means it’s limited to that occasion. It’s finite.

There are verb forms that are inflected but not finite. These are participles: I am doing, I have done. Most people who talk about dangling participles don’t know what those are either. But that’s not my subject for today. I shudder to think what Dirk may do with that one.

An infinitive is a verb that isn’t marked for who and when. That doesn’t mean that no one is doing it or that it’s not happening. It doesn’t mean it’s happening in infinity. It just means that some other verb gets the finite markings.

An infinitive is like bacon on the hamburger of the sentence. It’s meat, but it’s not the main meat.

But when you buy a bacon burger, I bet you’re really buying it for the bacon. And the finite verb may not be the real main event of the sentence. Sometimes the infinitive is what matters more.

Here, in these sentence the finite verb is bold and the infinitive is underlined (there may be more than one):

Who wants to try this dish?

You should try this dish.

I expect you to try this dish.

I didn’t expect to try this dish.

Oh, I can hear them already. The people lining up to call me an ignoramus for not underlining to before try. Didn’t we all learn that an infinitive is to plus the verb?

So tell me, where’s the to in the second sentence? Where’s the to before expect in the fourth sentence?

Deleted because of the auxiliary verbs should and did? That’s the usual story. But originally, infinitives in English were just one word. Just as they are in French, Latin, German, and so on. Our modern form with the to comes from a special form in Old English that was used to express purpose.

In other words, the to was inserted after verbs such as want and expect. Notice how you can say I want to and I expect to where you can’t say I want and I expect:

Do you want to try it? I want to.

Do you expect to try it? I don’t expect to.

Obviously the to is more attached to the verb before it than to the infinitive in those cases.

But the real point I’m making is not whether the to is added or removed. History is relevant, but things can change. The real point I’m making is that the to is not glued onto the infinitive. It never has been. It never started to be. Someone just got a bee in their bonnet.

That’s what makes me think of tea with milk. Think of the to as the cup and the infinitive as the tea. The milk modifies the tea, which makes it an adverb. There’s no one who says you have to put the adverb between the to and the verb like there are people who say you have to put the milk in first. But there are people who say that putting the adverb in there, “splitting the infinitive,” is a disgusting sign of dreadful education and blah blah oh do shut up. This is like saying that putting the milk in first is “naff,” “non-U,” lower-class, and so on.

I don’t want to wade into the debate over whether the tea tastes different depending on when you put the milk in. I suggest you do a blind taste test and decide for yourself. But you would think that adults would have better things to frown upon than the order of addition to the cup. Things such as inane class distinctions.

I don’t care when you put your milk in your tea. But I can tell you that sometimes putting the adverb in between the to and the verb does make a useful difference in the taste of the sentence. Sometimes it can change the meaning, and sometimes it can change the flow, and sometimes both:

Did you really intend to burn it?

Did you intend really to burn it?

Did you intend to really burn it?

Did you intend to burn it really?

We’ve told you before about sound flow. Some ways of putting things are also just less idiomatic. And some adverbs have a different sense when you put them between to and the infinitive.

Of course sometimes it produces bad results:

I need to absolutely have it ready for dinner.

You are still expected to use your ears and your brain. Freedom in the kitchen does not mean it’s OK to serve cola-marinated steak with peppermint sauce. But the movability of adverbs gives another option for adjusting nuances in the sentence. It’s useful.

And guess what. We’ve always had that option. It’s not like someone started sticking something somewhere it didn’t belong. Someone just decided that it didn’t belong in a place it had always gone fine in.

It’s another thing like sentence adverbs: some dumb people want to say you can’t do it. They have no good reason to say so. They’re just being childish. Do you let childish people tell you what you can’t eat? Well, you shouldn’t. If they’re paying you to cater to their silly demands, you can go along with them until you get better work. Otherwise, ignore them.

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