Split Infinitives

Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive [expletive deleted], I split it so it will stay split….—Raymond Chandler1

The proscription against splitting infinitives—the insertion of one or more words between the particle to and the bare verb2 (eg, to really try, to quickly go)—dates from the early 19th century, when an 1834 magazine article fired perhaps the first shot in the war against the construction.3 Other observers such as Henry Alford (A Plea for the Queen’s English [1864])4 quickly followed suit, and soon a full-blown battle was afoot. The timing of all of this is not surprising, given the affection of the Victorian era for Latin,4 a language in which the infinitive cannot be split because it is a single word.5,6

It should be noted, however, that writers of English have been making free use of the split infinitive since the 14th century3 and that “Noteworthy splitters include John Donne, Daniel Defoe, George Eliot, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, William Wordsworth, and Willa Cather”6—and Raymond Chandler, who once took the admirably firm stance noted above.1 Moreover, the split infinitive has enjoyed renewed support since at least the 1930s, and many authorities now agree with Sterling Leonard, who in 1932 wrote that “The evidence in favor of the judiciously split infinitive is sufficiently clear to make it obvious that teachers who condemn it are wasting their time and that of their pupils.”7 Part of the reason for the support is that because the particle to is not truly part of the infinitive, technically “there’s nothing to split.”4 Furthermore, a split infinitive sounds natural because in English, the best place for an adverb… is right in front of the word it describes.”4

However, some discretion is necessary. Some split infinitives are acceptable because the adverb will not make sense anywhere else in the sentence. Others simply sound better owing to the rise and fall of accented syllables (consider, for example, perhaps the most famous split infinitive of all time—Star Trek’s “To boldly go where no man has gone before….”).2,3,7 Still others are acceptable on the grounds that unsplitting them would result in an awkward construction or, worse, change the sense altogether7—consider, for example, the different meanings of “I want to live simply,” “I simply want to live,” and “I want to simply live.”8

This is not to say that all infinitives can or should be split. Given the lingering wariness toward the construction, avoiding splits is advisable when writing for unfamiliar audiences or for those known to favor the proscription; in such cases, if “a split is easily fixed by putting the adverb at the end of the phrase and the meaning remains the same, then avoiding the split is the best course.”7 Also, writers should carefully assess splits involving the insertion of 2 or more words between the particle and the bare verb to ensure that the intended meaning is not changed or simply obscured by a list of adverbs. Last, writers should also take special care to avoid ambiguity that can arise when only the first infinitive in a series of infinitives contains the particle, because it can be unclear whether the adverb modifies only the first infinitive or all of the infinitives in the series.7

The bottom line:

● Splitting infinitives is not incorrect—but deciding whether to split is a matter of having “a good ear and a keen eye.”7

● Whenever possible, take into account the perceived tastes of the audience—and always take into account the rhythm and sound of the construction, the number of adverbs in use, and any ambiguity that might result from placement of the adverb(s).

● Recasting a sentence to avoid using an infinitive altogether is always an option.

● If it seems that splitting is justifiable, by all means go for it—and know that you are in good company.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Chandler R. Letter to Atlantic Monthly editor Edward Weeks. Dictionary.com website. http://quotes.dictionary.com/would_you_convey_my_compliments_to_the_purist. January 18, 1948. Accessed November 8, 2012.

2. Fogarty M. Quick and Dirty Tips: Split Infinitives. Grammar Girl website. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/split-infinitives.aspx. Accessed October 9, 2012.

3. Nordquist R. Grammar & Composition: Split Infinitive. About.com website. http://grammar.about.com/od/rs/g/splitinfinitive.htm?p=1. Accessed October 9, 2012.

4. O’Conner PT. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Riverhead Books; 2009:210-213.

5. Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007:322.

6. Split Infinitive. thefreedictionary.com website. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/p/Splits%20the%20infinitive. Accessed October 9, 2012.

7. Garner BA. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2000:314-315.

8. Maddox M. What Is a Split Infinitive? DailyWritingTips website. http://www.dailywritingtips.com/what-is-a-split-infinitive/. Accessed November 8, 2012.

Quiz Bowl: Articles

Once again it’s time for a historic Quiz Bowl. Okay, maybe historic is a bit much, but I’m trying to make a point here. The point has to do with the subject of this month’s AMA Manual of Style quiz—articles. Is it a historic or an historic Quiz Bowl? Did you guess a historic? If so, you’re right. The article a is used before the aspirate h (eg, a historic occasion) and nonvocalic y (eg, a ubiquitous organism) (§11.9, Articles, p 412 in print).

Try another example from this month’s quiz.

The physician told that patient that he should have a/an ultrasound examination performed.

Here’s a hint. Sometimes it helps to read the sentence aloud.

The answer is as follows (use your mouse to highlight the text box):

The physician told that patient that he should have an ultrasound examination performed.

Words beginning with vowels are preceded by a or an according to the sound following (in this case, the u sound) (§11.9, Articles, p 412 in print).

Sound plays an important role in determining whether to use a or an. Test your skills by taking the full Articles Quiz on the AMA Manual of Style online. It will be a (or is that an?) unique experience.—Laura King, MA, ELS

Around, About, Approximately

Although each of these words is used to refer to a value that is estimated and therefore imprecise, whether it is acceptable to use them interchangeably depends in part on context and the level of accuracy being implied.

Some speakers and writers will use approximately before turning to the other two—not surprising, because people faced with a choice between words will often choose the most impressive-sounding one. And sometimes that choice happens to be correct. On the other hand, people will often, especially in casual communications, use around or about as a sort of verbal shorthand. And again, sometimes that choice happens to be correct.

So, what’s the scoop? To sort this out, it helps to recognize that authorities for the most part agree that around, about, and approximately lie on a scale from casual to formal. As it happens, around is also thought of as the most imprecise and approximately the most precise, with about falling somewhere in between. It further helps to note that around, meaning merely “with some approach to exactness,”1(p68) is not widely considered an adequate replacement for either about or approximately and thus is often accepted only in casual conversation.2 Hence, in conversation between friends, for example, many speakers will toss off a “See ya around three,” whereas in written communications, as Bernstein maintains, “‘about three o’clock’ is preferable to ‘around three o’clock.’”2

Things get a bit more complicated as one moves along the scale: not only does the choice of word depend in part on the closeness to accuracy required by different types of communication, but the differences between the implied degrees of closeness can be subtle. For example, Merriam-Webster’s defines about as “reasonably close to”1(p4) and approximately as “nearly correct or exact.”1(p61) However, it is safe to say that in nontechnical communications (which presumably often place less emphasis on precision), the use of about is not only accepted but is perhaps preferred. As Garner maintains, “When possible, use about instead of approximately, a formal word”3(p5)—where a “formal” word is defined simply as one “occupying an elevated level of diction.”3(pp153-154) On the other hand, as suggested by the above definitions, about does not emphasize a closeness to accuracy as strongly as approximately does—which helps explain why about seems fine when used to refer to estimated values that have been rounded to multiples of 5 or 10 but can seem strange when used to refer to unrounded values.4 Moreover, around and about each have multiple meanings and can be used in other senses, whereas approximately is used in a single sense only, leading some authorities to maintain that the latter is a better choice for technical communications.5

The bottom line:

● Referring to an inexact value in casual conversation? Around, about, and approximately are all acceptable, but approximately can sound a bit pretentious.

● Referring to an inexact value in nontechnical writing? About is perhaps the best choice, around being too informal and approximately being a tad too formal.

● Referring to an inexact value in medical or other technical writing? Although about may very occasionally be used if one carefully assesses the context, approximately is nearly always the best choice.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003.

2. Around. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:44-45.

3. Garner BA. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2000.

4. Yateendra J. About and Around and Approximately: Shades of Difference? Editage website. http://blog.editage.com/about-and-around-and-approximately-shades-of-difference. Accessed August 1, 2012.

5. Scientific English as a Foreign Language: Around, About, Approximately. Worcester Polytechnic Institute website. http://users.wpi.edu/~nab/sci_eng/97_Jun_20.html. 1997. Accessed August 1, 2012.

Purposely, Purposefully

These words sound similar, and over time their meanings have come to overlap somewhat. Generally, however, they are regarded as having different meanings and uses—although the differences are admittedly subtle—and in choosing between them, writers should carefully consider the message they wish to convey.

Purposely—meaning “with a deliberate or express purpose”1 or “intentionally”2—was first on the scene, entering usage in the late 1400s.2 A second meaning, “to good purpose; effectively,” came into use about 100 years later but is now considered obsolete.2

In contrast, purposefully—meaning “full of determination”1—was a relative latecomer, not coming into use until the mid 1800s,2 and is still used in those senses. Over time, though, purposefully also has come to be used interchangeably with purposely in the sense of “intentionally,”2 perhaps because something done with determination is also done intentionally. But of course the reverse is not necessarily true, which suggests that writers should use purposely when referring to intention alone.

To some ears, however, purposely sounds uneducated or incorrect, leading some writers to instead use purposefully in error; moreover, writers simply looking for a more impressive word will also sometimes instead use purposefully—again incorrectly.3 But even when purposefully is the correct choice, writers should take care that their intended meaning is not misconstrued. For example, the statement “On occasion, a clinician might purposely elicit pain” likely simply means that the clinician is intentionally eliciting pain (for the purpose of making a diagnosis). On the other hand, the statement “On occasion, a clinician might purposefully elicit pain” might imply that the clinician is determinedly eliciting pain (again—one can only hope—for the purpose of making a diagnosis). In both instances, careful handling of the context can make clear that the elicitation of pain is a necessary evil in service of a worthy end. For example, simply ending either of the above statements with “to help make a diagnosis” can go a long way toward ensuring that the clinician is not construed as something of a sadist.

The bottom line:

●Is “intentionally” the intended message? Use purposely.

●Is “full of determination” the intended message? Use purposefully.

●In both cases, however, take care to ensure that the context helps readers determine the intended meaning.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:1011.

2. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:1474.

3. Purposefully, purposely. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:376.


If any doctor tells me, as I lie in my hospital bed, that my death will not only help others to live, but be symptomatic of the triumph of humanity, I shall watch him very carefully when he next adjusts my drip.—Julian Barnes1

He lays his hands flat on Addie, rocking her a little.—William Faulkner2(p147)

“[A]s I lie in my hospital bed”? Surely Barnes is correct—although some readers might wonder if this should read “as I lay in my hospital bed.” Similarly, Faulkner’s “He lays his hands flat on Addie” sounds correct, but is it really, in a novel in which sentences such as “You lay you down and rest you”2(p37) are used to so effectively communicate the rich idiom of that fictional world? Moreover, when Faulkner titles his novel As I Lay Dying, is he being grammatically correct or simply giving free rein to Addie Bundren’s vernacular? To further complicate matters, where would “lain” and “laid” fit into all this?

Ah, the joys of irregular verbs. In English, forming the simple past and the past participle forms of most verbs is simple—one simply adds -ed to the root form of the verb and is then free to knock off for the day. However, irregular verbs complicate this otherwise blissful state of affairs by requiring writers to memorize alternate forms for the past tenses. True enough, users of English have things pretty easy in this respect compared with users of some other languages, but English has enough irregular verbs—80 or more—to keep things interesting. Further complicating matters is that even the alternate forms of irregular verbs are sometimes irregularly applied—for example, sometimes the present and the past participle are the same (eg, become [present], became [simple past], become [past participle]), sometimes the simple past and the past participle are the same (deal, dealt, dealt), and sometimes the verb does not change form at all (hurt, hurt, hurt). Fortunately, though, memorizing the alternate forms for most irregular verbs seems to pose little problem for most English users.

So why all the angst when it comes to lie? It is just lie, lay, and lain, right? Well, so far so good—but what leads many English users astray is that lay, the simple past tense of lie, is also the present tense of lay, a different verb with a similar meaning. Lie means “To be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position” or “to assume a horizontal position”3(p717); lay means “To put or set down” or “to place for rest or sleep.”3(p705) The difference is that lie is intransitive, meaning it communicates a complete action by itself; lay, in contrast, is transitive, meaning it needs to act on a direct object to communicate a complete thought. So Barnes’ “as I lie in my hospital bed” is correct—as is an imperative such as “You lie down”—because these sentences need no direct object to communicate a complete action. Similarly, “He lays his hands flat on Addie” is correct, as is As I Lay Dying—the former because the present form of lay describes an action on something (in this case, “his hands”) and the latter because lay in that case is not the present of lay but rather the simple past of lie. On the other hand, Faulkner’s “You lay you down and rest you” is not, in the strictest sense, correct—although this instance is interesting, because while the speaker is correctly using a direct object with the transitive lay, the direct object is not a true object but rather a reflexive (and in this case redundant) element, and the choice of verb is incorrect from the start; in effect, the speaker is saying “place yourself down,” which, if judged apart from the idiom of Faulkner’s novel, would clearly be incorrect. The correct form of the sentence would use the intransitive verb: “You lie down.”

So—presuming the English user wishes to use lie or lay in one of the senses indicated above and is not contemplating telling a lie, communicating with a lay audience, or getting the lay of the land—how to simplify this mess?

A few quick tips:

• Determine the correct verb to be used, remembering that lie is intransitive and lay is transitive and requires an object. It might be helpful to remember that lay is often used to mean “to place (something on)”—or, for the mnemonically minded: “to p-lay-ce (something on).”

Lied is never correct as either the simple past or the past participle of lie or lay when used in the senses indicated above—lied is used only when, for example, someone has just lied to someone else.

• For lie, the simple past and past participle forms are lay and lain (I lie dying, I lay dying, I have lain dying).

• For lay, the simple past and past participle forms are laid and laid (He lays his hands flat on Addie, He laid his hands flat on Addie, He has laid his hands flat on Addie).—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Barnes J. Nothing to Be Frightened Of. New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf; 2008:177.

2. Faulkner W. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York, NY: Random House; 2000.

3. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003.

For Against As

Since I have been copyediting at JAMA, I have been trying to reinvigorate the use of for as a coordinating conjunction when authors use the word as as demonstrated in the following construction.

There was no significant difference between the study population and the 60 participants who were excluded, as for they had inadequate sample volumes for the assay.

When the typescript came back, my for was deleted and replaced with because. Although I have no objection to because, I like for because it is clear, to the point, and efficient. Despite the continued rejection of my edits, I continue to advocate its use through the editing process, hoping it will take hold, hoping to change enough people’s minds that it will become so common that people will not regard it as “highfalutin” or “dated.”

Besides its efficiencies in language, its use has economic implications: it is shorter than because, for it saves ink and paper, which should please bottom-line conscious editors and publishers. Furthermore, it is grammatically correct and occupies the first place in the mnemonic FANBOYS, which can be found in writing guides to help students remember all of the coordinating conjunctions available to them. Why keep it in the writers’ reference manuals if no one uses it, I ask?

Finally, using as as a coordinating conjunction can be confusing and may steer readers in unintended directions. Coordinating conjunctions are used to show that the clauses of the compound sentence are equivalent. Subordinating conjunctions are designed to show that one idea is more important than another. Both as and because find themselves on the subordinating conjunction list. If they should head the second clause, they should stand alone without the aid of a comma, which when used with coordinating conjunctions announces the compound sentence. So as a copyeditor and a reader, when I see the comma preceding the as I think the author is presenting equivalent ideas rather than subordinating ideas, which is why I am compelled to change as to for. My point is that as when presented in a coordinating conjunction construction is ambiguous and can shift an author’s meaning despite his or her intent. For does not.—Beverly Stewart, MSJ