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Why Doesn’t Anyone Care About Split Infinitives?

You know it’s true. For all that high school Grammar & Composition teachers tried to drill it into us, nobody cares. I’m not even sure the teachers care outside the classroom. Even grammar nazis seem to shrug and look the other way.

In case some of you care so little that you’ve already wiped the error from your mind, here’s how it works.

to + a verb in its infinitive form = an infinitive phrase

For example, “to be,” “to run,” and “to gallivant” are all infinitive phrases. Written like that, they’d be correct (not split). If you stick an adverb in the middle of them, “to humbly be,” “to awkwardly run,” or “to dramatically gallivant,” then they’re split and (technically) incorrect.

So why doesn’t anyone seem to care?

I don’t know (I don’t think anyone can know), but I can theorize. I can theorize that most people don’t know what an infinitive is, let alone an infinitive phrase or a split infinitive. And if they have no clue what it is, why on Earth would they care? (Let alone how…)

Then again, many people don’t know about plenty of other grammar errors, and it drives grammar lovers crazy (homophone errors or direct address, for starters).

So why is it that grammar lovers (or nazis) don’t care about this particular rule?

It can’t be because we split infinitives all the time when we talk – we break plenty of grammar rules when we talk. Most grammar nazis either understand the difference between casual speech and formal speech (especially between spoken and written) or don’t care and get upset about grammar mistakes in either.

The only reason I can think that explains why no one cares about split infinitives is the fact that it doesn’t muddle meaning. It really doesn’t. In English, adverbs can go before or after the verbs they modify, so it isn’t misplacing the modifier. It truly seems to be a rule for the sake of a rule (which, I would argue, is not usually the case).

But, like I said, I don’t know. That’s the only reason I’ve thought of that makes some sense (to me). How about you? Got any ideas?

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Good Grammar & Tired Brains Don’t Mix

If you want your writing to have decent grammar, it’s better to do it when you’re conscious (the brain, at least, should be awake). As obvious as that seems, when you’re trying to cram in writing with a full time job, family, friends, car repairs, etc., it’s not the easiest rule to stick to. There are plenty of writers who get their writing in after everyone else is in bed or before they themselves collapse for the night.

Like right now. When I’m writing this.

The only problem with that is that tired brains make more mistakes. Honestly, I make more than twice as many grammar errors when I’m tired or in a hurry (or, heaven forbid, both). And they’re the embarrassing types of mistakes – like typing the wrong “there” or using a possessive for a plural noun. I’m ok with some errors (I’m not the worst grammar Nazi out there). Too many, and I want to hide and apologize to the world for whatever I posted (like if I break the “Top 5 Grammar Rules Not to Break“).

It makes writing grammar articles moderately terrifying (Srsly, what’s more embarrassing than making the mistake you’re telling people not to make in the same article?). At the same time, it makes writing articles take twice as long. That’s because I can’t stand to publish them until I’ve read them a dozen or more times checking for errors (unfortunately, that’s not always an exaggeration).

A little ocd? Maybe. But it keeps the writing closer to the quality I want it to be.

Actually, that’s the general lesson I’d take away from this. I won’t tell you to stop writing in your sleep. For all I know, that’s the only real chance you have to write at all. If you do, however, be aware of the grammar (and continuity) issues it can cause. Be ready to edit more (preferably, when you’re awake) or to have someone do it for you. Don’t assume your tired brain has the same grammar skills it normally does.

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A Grammar-related T-shirt That Is All Too True

I'm silently correcting your grammar. t-shirt

Of course, people online wouldn’t be able to see the shirt, but I still want it.

I do this automatically. At least, I’ve learned to do it silently (usually). On the other hand, I might be focusing on your speaking style so that I can use it when writing dialogue… but that’s too long to put on a t-shirt.

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Criticism v. Editing: What’s the Difference?

I get the impression that people sometimes lump criticism and editing together when they are in fact two very separate entities. Since you don’t want to make the mistake of giving one when someone wanted the other, it’s important to understand their differences. From what I can see, the biggest differences are who, how, and why.

Criticism

As a rule, criticism is given when the author has asked for it either by taking part in a writing circle or asking a friend to read the piece and give feedback1. Giving feedback to an author who hasn’t asked for it is generally considered rude, so be mindful of that.

  • Who: friends, colleagues, or members of a writing circle
  • How: through friendly conversation in person, by phone/email, or on a forum
  • Why: 1. because the author asked for feedback 2. to find big problems with the story (not the grammar2)

Getting feedback about the story is not about hundreds of minute problems and how to fix them. It should be a couple of big ideas, specific scenes, or specific problems (like characterization, plot, or setting). Remember that the goal is to improve the story, not to fix grammar errors.

Editing

Authors may or may not ask for outside feedback and criticism, but all authors should go through some form of editing even if it means hiring a copyeditor. If you’re going through a publisher, some of the editing will include story-related problems (like criticism), but the main focus is word usage, punctuation, and formatting – in other words, making sure that the story is written in generally correct English (or at least intelligible English).

  • Who: an editor paid by the author or the publisher
  • How: through markings on the manuscript (or file)
  • Why: 1. to correct technical writing issues like grammar and punctuation and 2. to fix any major story problems that might prevent sales (generally, to make the work readable and sellable)

Most likely, editing will involve hundreds of minute problems and how to fix them. Although editing through a publisher may very well include story feedback, editing as a whole is more about syntax, punctuation, and formatting.

Criticism v. Editing

While some might call them two sides of the same coin, I think of criticism and editing as two destinations on a road trip. You might go to two different towns for similar reasons, but the goals and details of the experiences are not the same. If you went to Town A, and got Town B instead, you’d be confused and frustrated (seriously, that would just be weird).

So if someone asks for criticism, give criticism. If someone asks for editing, give editing. If you’re not sure what the person wanted, ask.

Simple, right?

 

1. Note that I am not including book reviews in this because generally they are written for people interested in reading the book – not the author.
2. The only time grammar is usually critiqued in a writer circle is if it is so bad that the story is unintelligible. There may be exceptions to this, but usually the goal is to focus on the story itself.