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Close up image of thesaurus entry for the word 'grammar'

To strand and split: unforgivable or acceptable?

I don’t have an inner pedant.

Instead, mine is particularly obvious and opinionated: liable to dole out some serious side-eye if you put an apostrophe in the wrong place.

That said, there are two so-called grammar misdemeanours I’ll tolerate and even encourage: ending sentences with prepositions and splitting infinitives.

They’re rules that grammarians, keen to bring English in line with Latin language structure, sought to introduce centuries ago.

And both continue to stimulate debate today. But, bearing in mind the years that have passed, and how they came into being, do they have a role or relevance in modern English?

I’m not sure they do.

Prepositions

Prepositions, including to, by, on, at and about, describe the relationship between parts of a sentence or clause.

Avoiding ending a sentence with a preposition can make what you’ve written seem clumsy and stilted or even, as is often said, Yoda-esque.

For example:

  • She broke the vase in the shop, so paid for it had to be.

Rather than the much more natural:

  • She broke the vase in the shop, so it had to be paid for.

Split infinitives

While I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Gene Roddenberry’s goal when he pitched Star Trek to television executives, the Shatner-narrated ‘to boldly go’ opener is probably the best known example of a split infinitive (where an adverb is placed between the word ‘to’ and the verb).

For what it’s worth, I believe avoiding split infinitives can make writing lose some of its impact or even subtly change the meaning of a sentence. Not really what you what when you’re trying to communicate clearly.

To compare:

  • Susan decided slowly to walk to work: she took a while to come to her decision to walk to work.
  • Susan decided to slowly walk to work: she walked slowly.
  • Susan decided to walk to work slowly: the meaning here is ambiguous. Did she take her time deciding, or did she walk slowly?

I think the added emphasis a split infinitive gives is important too, particularly if, for example, it’s being used in marketing materials to plainly articulate to potential customers why a specific product or service is the right one for them.

Let’s be clear, I’m not suggesting we split infinitives or strand prepositions just to be objectionable; however, I am proposing, in the interests of unambiguous copy and plain English, that there are times when it’s appropriate, even desirable, to over-ride these supposed rules.

One thing’s for sure, the grammar debate looks set to continue.

What do you think? Are these conventions outdated and irrelevant or compulsory and pertinent?