To better understand . . . Or to understand better?

split infinitive cartoonHas anyone given you grief over splitting an infinitive in your writing? If so, they would claim “to better understand” is wrong because the adverb better appears between to and the verb understand. The “rule” to avoid splitting infinitives originated in the 18th century due to a faulty comparison of English with Latin. (For more on such misinformed “rules,” head over to Motivated Grammar.)

While I find it surprising, the choice to split or not does sometimes elicit controversy. If you don’t believe me, you can read about a recent tussle between a journalist at The Economist and a linguistGrammar Girl might be right when she advises “it takes boldness to split an infinitive.” But do a journalist and a linguist accurately represent workplace readers? (I’ve urged you to attend only to usage that matters as established by research rather than to any individual’s pet peeves. I’ve listed the most relevant studies again at the end of this post.)

Of the six major research studies on writing mechanics since 1981, split infinitives were included in exactly zero of them.  In the most recent study (“Mistakes are a fact of life: A national comparative study” by Lunsford & Lunsford), split infinitives were considered but purposefully excluded because they were so rare in the writing of freshmen composition students. In the most relevant study for our purposes (“Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors” by Leonard & Gilsdorf), split infinitives were not tested because they were not considered one of the 45 most potentially distracting language choices.

Linguistics Research Digest recently summarized  a 2013 study by Perales-Escudero on the use of split infinitives in the Journal of English Linguistics. Here’s what the summary said.

We might assume that split infinitives would most often be used in spoken language, due to its more informal and less rigid nature and Escudero-Perales [sic] did indeed find that some examples, such as to just + verb’, to really + verb and to actually + verb are much more common in spoken registers.  On the other hand, he also found that other examples, such as to effectively + verb and to better + verb, showed strong associations with written academic registers.  In fact, the split infinitive that was used with most frequency in the COCA [Corpus of American English] was to better understand and it was mainly used in the written academic register, which we would probably perceive as the most rigid with regards to language rules.  However, it seems that it is this particular register which has given rise to its own split infinitive forms, especially those made with to better and to effectively.

So the evidence I have says stop thinking about split infinitives. There are so many other things to learn about writing successfully in the workplace!

Further Reading

For those of you who want to see the evidence for yourself,  here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

5 thoughts on “To better understand . . . Or to understand better?

  1. Amazing blog! Do you have any tips and hints for
    aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own site soon but I’m a little
    lost on everything. Would you suggest starting with a free
    platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally overwhelmed ..
    Any recommendations? Bless you!

    • Thanks for your kind words. I encourage you to use WordPress. It’s free and easy to learn. It also offers you options for customizing as you learn more.

      Good luck!

  2. The phrase ‘due to’ is misused in the third sentence; its proper use requires a helping verb (was due to). There is always more to learn about the English language, even for ‘pros.’ Live long and learn.

    • Hi there, Rob,
      if you mean:
      “The “rule” to avoid splitting infinitives originated in the 18th century due to a faulty comparison of English with Latin”
      – I don’t personally see the error. This is an interesting point and I’d be curious to see how and where you would insert the ‘helping verb’ “was”, as you put it. We already have the verb “originated”, so surely an additional verb would be incorrect?
      Thanks

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