It seems to me that I have been told to never split infinitives many times during my schooling, but I can never recall what happened next, I guess because my brain immediately shut down as part of a defense mechanism to prevent me from learning what an infinitive was. That meant I had to look them up in order to write this column, and I can now happily report that an infinitive is a form of a verb without a subject or tense; in English it's (I think) always bound to the word "to." "To go," "To fart" and so on.
A split infinitive is when the "to" and the verb are split by other words, typically adverbs. "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is the classic example of a split infinitive from the title sequence of Star Trek. People with red pens around the world have long claimed that infinitives should never be split, because ... of ... a reason? Surely there must be something to it. This couldn't just be some rule made up by an asshole, could it?
It turns out that's exactly what happened. There aren't really any good reasons for prohibiting split infinitives. They generally don't impede comprehensibility, and when used carefully, they provide options for the writer to decide where the emphasis of a sentence will fall. The rule against split infinitives probably was invented by someone in olden, bearded times who noticed that split infinitives can't exist in Latin and decided that they shouldn't be allowed to exist in English, either.
"Reginald. Come in here and listen to this great idea I had that will piss people off for centuries."
The use or misuse of "I'm good" is another commonly corrected grammar mistake, best encapsulated in the following bit of dialogue:
Friend 1: Hello friend, how are you today?
Friend 2: I'm good.
Friend 1: I think you meant to say "I'm well," you caveman. "I'm good" means something else entirely.
Friend 2: Eat my shit. You knew exactly what I meant. I will whale on you with this length of chain until you change your ways.
-chain whaling commences-
Friend 1: See, you're not "good" at all!
Here we see a joyless son of a bitch insisting that the word "good" means "holy," or "righteous," or "not evil," or something along those lines. Which is correct, but it ignores the fact that "good" can also mean "desirous," or "fit," or "satisfactory," or "pleasant," or a dozen other things. If you think that someone is talking about their moral righteousness when they casually say "I'm good," then you're deliberately trying to misunderstand them, a crime worthy of chain-whalings in all jurisdictions.
I knew when laying out this article that if there was any entry that would cause people to heave flaming copies of Strunk & White through my window, it'd be this one. The use and misuse of this particular word is a pet peeve for millions of people, and even a partial attempt to defend it ranks among the most inflammatory things I've ever done with this column, a list which also includes providing advice on how to beat animals. So everyone hold on to your butts for a moment while we have a serious, grown-up discussion about "literally."
"Literally" is an adverb that originally meant "by the letter." This definition expanded a little bit and now means something like "exactly as stated" or "this is a real thing that is, no bullshit here, actually happening." So when a teenage girl says:
"I keep getting the worst emails from some Chris Bucholz guy. He is literally the creepiest dude in the universe."
... we know she's speaking incorrectly; the universe is massive, immune to any sort of comprehensive survey of creepiness.
"Who writes a poem about crying while on the toilet?"
The word she probably should have used was "figuratively." Instead, she's using "literally" to mean "I'm exaggerating here." This is the exact opposite of what "literally" is supposed to mean, and is thus obviously wrong.
Or is it?
Everyone immediately understands what this teenage girl means when she uses "literally" in that sense; we all get that she's making a humorous exaggeration to communicate just how upsetting my unceasing communications are to her. In fact, this sense of "literally" has been used for at least a couple centuries. And if everyone knows what "literally" means in that context, doesn't that make it correct?
I should be clear here: I'm not literally encouraging people to use "literally" in this manner. I certainly don't. It's a weak, even cliched way of emphasizing something, and given its tendency to make people berserk, it's usually not worth the trouble. What I am advocating is a bit of restraint, so that the next time you come across a foolish use of "literally" in the wild, you don't literally spray crap down your pant leg in a blind fury.
You made it to the end of a 2,500 word article about grammar! Holy shit! I am literally very proud of you! What does that even mean any more?
What we've done here is gotten right down into the trenches of a war between prescriptivist grammarians and descriptivist grammarians -- a conflict which, no matter how boring you think it sounds, is actually 10 times more boring than that. Just to give you a tiny glimpse of that boredom, I'll briefly describe both sides, probably unfairly:
Prescriptivists document the rules of grammar, and sometimes, when no one's looking, make them up entirely. They also feel the need to enforce the rules of grammar, and in particular advocate that these rules and definitions shouldn't change. They argue this for a variety of reasons, but those usually boil down to "Otherwise, civilization will evaporate into an orgy of orgy-themed game shows and fad diets that consist entirely of eating each other's flesh."
Descriptivists also document the rules of grammar, but don't particularly care when they're violated, because fuck rules, man. And if the rules ever do change, descriptivists simply shrug and write down the new ones. They point out that civilization has never collapsed during any of the previous changes to English grammar, and indeed has even managed to excel -- giving us advances like polio vaccines, color television and sexting.
"Thanks, civilization!" -loud SPROING sound effect-
This is a war that has been going on for a few hundred years now, and if you're curious, the current score is something like prescriptivists: 0; descriptivists: 18,433,327. The reason for this is straightforward: There is a massive percentage of the population, somewhere north of 99 percent, that struggles with telling the difference between nouns and verbs. With no use for the rules of grammar, they simply talk like their friends and neighbors talk. That this will lead to slowly drifting definitions and grammatical structures is inevitable, because these people don't know the rules in the first place, and could not fucking care less if they did.
This puts writers, who are generally concerned with verbin' etiquette, in a tricky position. By choosing not to use newly minted grammatical rules and words, they impede their ability to communicate with the rest of the population. They cut themselves off from the creative options that new words and grammar open up, and if they hew too closely to the old, unchanging rules, they can make their writing sound stuffy and formal.
And now for the furious backpedaling: This isn't to say that we shouldn't care about grammar at all. Even if rules and definitions change, those changes should come slowly. When we violate grammatical rules or use strange new definitions of words, we impede our audience's ability to comprehend what we're saying. We can see vestiges of this when we travel to other English-speaking countries, where small changes in language can lead to these issues of delayed comprehension. Witness the differing meanings when saying the following sentence to English or American audiences:
"She crammed chips into her fanny until the townspeople begged her to stop."
Even if we can eventually figure out what's going on here, and are appropriately horrified, this type of confusion and delay in comprehension should be avoided whenever possible. That's why grammar is important.
So please, people of the Internet, learn the difference between all your "theres" and your "whichs" and your "yours." Stop using the "7" key when you mean "T." And please, ask a grown-up for help with apostrophes. Too many kids are getting hurt.
And on a final note, for the people who are combing this article for the grammatical errors I no doubt overlooked: I put them there deliberately as a test. Congratulations, you won. To claim your prize, please strike yourself with a chain until you stop feeling; the prize will be delivered to your home shortly thereafter.
For more Bucholz, check out The 25 Most Nonsensical Protest Signs and 6 Reasons the Comments on This Article Will Be Useless.