[Taxacom] Split infinitives in scientific writing

Richard Jensen rjensen at saintmarys.edu
Fri Nov 8 07:52:00 CST 2013

"Not splitting an infinitive" is one of those old grammatical rules that is
often ignored.  In fact, it has been ignored by many writers (great
writers, great science writers, and the rest of us as well) for hundreds of
years.  The idea was to ensure that there was no confusion about what the
adverb was modifying (that's my understanding, but I could easily be
wrong).  In fact, if nothing jumped out at you in my parenthetical comment,
then it seems that the point has been made.  For a purist, I should have
typed something such as "easily could be wrong" or "could be wrong easily",
or "could, easily, be wrong".  Do all of these have the same meaning?

Further, your "correct way" to write your last example, " to go boldly"
isn't necessarily the "correct" way.  What's wrong with "Boldly to go" as a
correct form.  Does it have the same meaning?  And, is anyone (even a
novice to the language) likely to misunderstand "to boldly go".  This seems
to place greater stress on "boldly" as part of the action.  As I recall,
that point was made by Strunk - inserting the adverb into the infinitive is
often done to place emphasis on the adverb.

Are we being too pedantic if we insist on never splitting an infinitive?
Or, as many argue, should we recognize that language evolves and the rules
that govern modern usage are just as subject to such change as the rules
that are no longer considered necessary?  Yes, science writing needs to be
precise, but is there a real difference between "to immediately separate"
and "to separate immediately"?


Dick J

On Fri, Nov 8, 2013 at 6:28 AM, Ashley Nicholas <Nicholasa at ukzn.ac.za>wrote:

> Hi everyone,
> Split infinitives are a constant sources of problems to my students,
> especially those whose mother tongue is not English. And I must confess I
> also slip up now and again.
> I am busy compiling a list of commonly use split infinitives found in
> scientific/taxonomic writing (that need to be corrected) as a hand-out for
> my students. I would be most grateful to those of you that have examples to
> please send these to me (I will acknowledge you in the student hand-out).
> Maybe do this privately so I don't clog up this Listserver with (what is in
> comparison to other topics) a minor thread.
> A split infinitive I come across frequently in student and postgrad work
> is "to scientifically test" which should be "to test scientifically".
> Albeit, Word is now quite good at picking these up. Being a "Star Trek"
> Fan, the most well know split infinitive is of course "To boldly go where
> no one has gone before". Which should be "To go boldly where no one has
> gone before" - but the correct version just doesn't have the same emotional
> impact.
> How seriously do editors and reviewers take mistakes like this?
> Regards, in haste.
> Ashley
> ---------------------------------------------------
> Ashley Nicholas (PhD)
> Associate Professor & Curator Ward Herbarium
> Academic Leader Biodiversity & Evolutionary Biology Cluster
> School of Life Science,  Westville Campus
> University of KwaZulu-Natal,
> Private Bag X54001,
> Durban, 4000, South Africa
> Tel.:+27-31-260 7719 Fax.: +27-31-260 2029
> http://lifesciences.ukzn.ac.za/Staff/Biodiversity/biodiv_evo_staff/Durban/nicholasa.aspx
> nicholasa at ukzn.ac.za<mailto:nicholasa at ukzn.ac.za>
> ----------------------------------------------------
> Empirical scientists do not deal with the truth, we deal with hypotheses.
> At their best these hypotheses are insightful and predictive, however,
> nonetheless experience has shown that they are often only a poor
> approximation of reality and therefore the truth.
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Richard Jensen, Professor
Department of Biology
Saint Mary's College
Notre Dame, IN 46556

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