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October 27th, 2004

Split infinitives / the both of you

by Barbara Wallraff

Sue Fishalow, of St. Petersburg, Fla., writes: “Is it ever proper to split an infinitive?”

Dear Sue: Split infinitives -- like, for instance, “to strongly disagree” -- aren’t actually wrong. None of today’s major authorities on language says they are. The prejudice against them started centuries ago, when some grammarians and writers argued that the best English follows the same grammatical patterns as Latin. But in Latin it’s impossible to split an infinitive, because the “to” we use has no Latin equivalent and the whole infinitive is contained in one word.

All the same, split infinitives annoy many readers and listeners -- so it’s a good idea to try to avoid them whenever conveniently possible. The split infinitive that everyone is familiar with is “to boldly go ...,” from “Star Trek.” (A digression into another language issue: Originally, that phrase ended “where no man has gone before.” Then, to avoid offending women’s sensibilities, the wording was changed to “where no one has gone before.” Now, no doubt because someone realized that Vulcans and Klingons and so forth may not be men but neither are they “no one,” the wording has morphed again, into “where no human has gone before.”)

The unsplit version of the “Star Trek” slogan, “to go boldly where ...,” sounds fine to me, I must admit. But sometimes moving the adverb out of the middle of the infinitive results in something awkward or incomprehensible. There’s no way to unsplit “to know” in “to really know what you’re talking about,” for instance, without changing the meaning or sounding artificial. The closest you can come is to get rid of “really” -- but “to know what you’re talking about” is less emphatic. Or consider “to thoroughly understand complicated ideas.” “To understand thoroughly complicated ideas”? That’s different.

My advice is this: Whenever you’ve made a good-faith attempt to get rid of a split infinitive and find yourself unhappy with the result, give up. To knowingly, boldly split an infinitive is not an offense against the language.

Silvia Fiondo, of St. Clair Shores, Mich., writes: “My ears hurt when I hear someone say ‘the both of you.’ I don’t know why. I think it should be either ‘both of you’ or ‘the two of you.’ Can you explain it to me?”

Dear Silvia: Your ears are wise. “The both of you” is ungrammatical. The problem with it is that “both,” in that phrase, is a pronoun -- like “each” or “some.” No one would say “the each of you” or “the some of you.” “The both of you” is no better.

This is not the only mistake people make with “both,” which is a strange word. The idea of “two” is built into it, but when it’s used instead of “the two,” the result is often illogical. For example, “Both sides agreed.” Could one side agree? No, not unless it was agreeing with the other. Could the two sides agree? Of course.

But “Both sides agreed” is redundant. The same goes for sentences like “Both of them have the same name” and “Both have a lot in common.” Whenever the idea that something is shared or mutual is expressed elsewhere in the thought, “both” becomes redundant, and “the two” is better English.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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