An Infinitive in Need of a Split

Some rules in English grammar are actually grammar folklore. We accept them; we get graded on them; and they take on iconic status. But they aren’t really as ironclad as they seem.

I already tackled ending a sentence with a preposition. So, today we take on split infinitives.

Most people know how to use infinitives—even if they don’t think about what they’re called. The basic format is to + a base verb:

  • to be
  • to hear
  • to go
  • to listen

Growing up, you may have been told that infinitives cannot be hacked apart. That is, the to has to go right with the verb and nothing shall render it asunder. If you’re like me, you may have even run up against a few red pens when you crossed that line.

But I’m here to free you from the historical misunderstanding. In Latin, an infinitive can’t be split because it’s one word (e.g., amare—to love), and since Latin was once considered a model language, this rule-that-is-not-a-rule crept into English.

English isn’t Latin, however. Oh, sure, there’s Latin in our jumbled language, but there’s no reason to abide by Latin constructs (especially for a German-based tongue). So, don’t feel guilty. Go ahead and use these:

  • to boldly go
  • to never surrender
  • to slowly slip

I do want to caution you, though. If you bump the infinitive apart and squeeze in an adverb (as I did above), some readers will think of it as wrong. The myth is too well engrained to easily be removed.

Also, some infinitive chopping can actually make the phrase confusing:

We need to before the day dawns go to the mountain.

The infinitive to go is so widely split that it’s awkward. The better sentence is this:

We need to go to the mountain before the day dawns.

A word or two between the to and the verb is usually fine. But three or more makes the brain work too much.

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Need the Data

Latin—it’s a language few people know, and yet it messes with so much of our grammar. I’m not advocating that you learn Latin, but you’ll often find that many an English snafu stems from that dusty language.

In Latin, for instance, plural nouns are formed in a variety of fashions. One of those ways involves taking the -um ending and making it an -a ending. Why does this matter? Because there’s one noun in particular that trips up even the best writers.

Here it is: The word data is formally a plural noun. That means these sentences are correct:

The data show that your passing numbers have fallen off.

The data are never wrong.

Personally, I don’t mind data being used in a singular fashion, and the trend is toward the word being both singular and plural. However, for formal works, make sure you keep it plural. For informal works (including most fiction), the rules are much looser.

A few other strange Latin (or Greek) plurals:

  • nebula—nebulae
  • formula—formulae (formulas)
  • rostrum—rostra
  • index—indices
  • axis—axes
  • species—species
  • criterion—criteria
  • radius—radii

Continually Continuous

I’m the first to admit my grammar faults, and the difference between the words continual and continuous continually trips me up—if I’m not vigilant. In fact, this once popped up on an editing test I took, which has since made me redouble my efforts to keep them straight and to develop a mnemonic device for simplicity.

Here are the basics:

  • continual: intermittent, repeated often (i.e., not always happening)
  • continuous: uninterrupted, unceasing (i.e., always happening within a certain period of time)

If something is continuous, that does not mean that it has to go on forever. For example, a person’s talking can be continuous for the span of a minute.

How do I remember the difference between these two words? You’ll have to dive into my brain to find out. Your results may vary.

  • Continual ends with an L because the same thing happens after a lull.
  • Continuous ends with an S because it doesn’t stop.

The proper use of these words looks something like this:

  • The frequent storms are a continual reminder that fall is fast approaching.
  • The rain fall was continuous from morning until night.

Fewer or Less and Farther or Further

The distinction between the words fewer and less can seem almost silly. However, the train of English grammar over the centuries has kept on a specific course. And this is what we have for now:

  • The word fewer (a plural noun) is used when you can count the number of items in question (no matter how high or microscopic the number is).
  • The word less (a single noun) is used when you cannot make an accurate count because what’s being measured is an abstraction.

That leaves us with correct usage that looks something like this:

  • There are fewer than five chips left for the salsa.
  • You have less patience than you did before I scratched your paint.

Is there an exception to this? You bet. When less is followed by than, it can function exactly like fewer.

  • No less than 90,000 fans watched their team lose in the last minute.

As a bonus, farther and further are becoming more and more segregated (in much the same way as fewer and less). The interesting aspect here is that this is a newer development.

  • Prefer farther when you can actually measure spatial or temporal distance. (In other words, further is acceptable, but farther is considered better.)
  • Use further when there’s no physical distance.
  • With metaphorical distances, you have the option of either term depending on preference.

Here’s what I mean:

  • The ball sailed farther to the left than he would have liked. [measurable distance]
  • He worked on further refining his kicking game. [no distance to actually measure]
  • Nothing could be further/farther from the truth. [pick wisely—based on what the editor likes]

Like or Such As

Although the terms like and such as are often used interchangeably, they do have slightly different functions. Formally, at least, these differences still matter.

Here are the classic definitions:

  • Use like to compare something you’ve mentioned to an example or examples.
  • Use such as to show that the example is representative of a category.

But there’s an easier way to remember:

  • Like shows a relation. (X is compared to A, B, and C.)
  • Such as gives specific examples without comparing. (A, B, and C are types of X.)

I’ll show you what I mean:

  • Sally wants to be a famous cook like Julia Childs and Emeril. (Sally compares herself to the cooks.)
  • Many famous cooks, such as Julia Childs and Emeril, have inspired Sally. (There’s no comparison; the two cooks are examples of the ones who inspired Sally.)

Muting the Moot Points

Some trends drive this editor crazy. I love the malleability of the English language—how it grows, shifts, changes, and absorbs. But mistakes perpetuated are still mistakes. Our case in point for today is the difference between the words mute and moot.

Now, I do understand why there is some confusion. Moot is one of those archaic words with roughly one main use, and it also happens to have similarities with mute. This closeness has given rise to the following type of malapropism:

Since he dropped out of the race, his fitness for the office is a mute point. [Please, please, please don’t use.]

This, however, is incorrect. Why? Let’s look at the definitions.

  • moot (müt): deprived of real significance, purely academic (the other meanings are rarely used)
  • mute (myüt): remaining silent, unable to make sound

If an argument has lost bearing because one of the main factors has changed or been removed, then the significance of that argument is gone. We can dream up scenarios of what could have been, but the point is no longer valid in actual fact. For this reason, the argument is now moot.

Here’s the bottom line: Most of the time, people mean that something is a moot point or a moot argument. If the argument were mute, they wouldn’t have heard it anyway.

[Update: A friend pointed out that some may also refer to these as “moo points” (a cow’s point of view).]

When to Use Question Marks

Spoken communication has something that written communication can never attain perfectly: inflection. A little lift in tone can give emphasis, tell when someone is being snarky, and signify a question. Writing doesn’t have that luxury—and I think the two-dimensional nature causes some stumbling with question marks.

What a Question Is

First of all, a question is a direct inquiry asked of someone or something. This doesn’t mean a reply is expected (e.g., rhetorical questions); it just means that the question has to be implicit and not framed by something else. You usually know a question by the “question words” that start the sentence (e.g., did, do, does, where, who, what, why, are, will, can, etc.). But no signal word need be used—especially informally—as long as a request is made.

Have you seen him pull out his Sharpie when he scores a touchdown?

This make sense to you?

One thing to watch out for is that question words don’t necessarily mean that something is a question. The title of this section is “What a Question Is”; this is not a request, but a statement of fact. Always check the motivation of the phrase or sentence to see if something is being requested.

Indirect Questions

Many times people frame questions as part of a larger thought or sentence. In such cases, you don’t use a question mark.

He asked me how many times I got a gutter ball.

In this case, there was a question asked of the narrator, but the narrator is not asking a question directly.

Common Problems

A trend that I’ve noticed is the use of question marks when giving a command, as if the question mark softens the request for action. Here’s an example:

Guess how many gumballs are in this gigantic container?

That is, however, wrong (as was my guess). If a sentence begins with a verb telling the audience to do something (an action, even mental), there won’t be a question mark. Commands aren’t requesting an answer; they’re directing.

Another common misplaced question mark occurs in wonder statements. The person speaking or writing ponders the significance of some deep subject and gives a statement of philosophical circumspection.

I wonder how many rivets there are in my blue jeans.

Notice that this is a mental action and not a direct request for information.