Event Horizon Telescope black hole image.
Katie Bouman’s algorithm helps linguists externalize visualize the crushing oblivion that awaits a society in which minor grammatical errors are tolerated.

A while ago I found myself in a discussion with an acquaintance who pointed out that, despite my frothing aversion to split infinitives, the authorities at the OED blog had declared them acceptable because the notion of a split infinitive being bad grammar was rooted in a fallacious Latinization of English grammar. The same blog, however, worked itself up into a fit about dangling participles, which it seemed to think were the black hole of understanding from which the feeble minds of the universe would never escape, despite the fact that the pesky things are ubiquitous and, in most cases, we do not even notice them.

In addition to highlighting just how much an authority’s opinion can be swayed by passing fads and personal bias, the discussion prompted a consideration of the difference between bad grammar and bad style but we will come to that in a moment.

Firstly, what is a split infinitive? Come to that, what is an unsplit infinitive?

The infinitive is the “basic” form of the verb. It comprises two parts: to and your verb here. It is unaffected by tense or number and will be the default present in a dictionary: looking up went will likely lead to something akin to ‘past tense of to go‘ for example. To be, to have, to walk, and to run are all infinitives, whereas I am, you have, he walks, and they ran are not. To split an infinitive, simply place a word, usually an adverb, after the ‘to’, hence Douglas Adams’ famous riff, ‘To boldly split infinitives that no man had split before’ (from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

Back to bad grammar versus bad style. The difference is not always obvious. A sentence beginning, ‘He wented to the farm’ is clearly wrong, and the phrase, ‘to boldly go’ is, we must concede, not. But what about, ‘She prepared to quickly and quietly cross the room’? I suspect that most readers would want to rearrange it to, ‘She prepared to cross the room quickly and quietly’, but why, if split infinitives are not bad grammar?

I would suggest the following: English relies upon the order of words to establish the relationships between them. In languages with cases, word order can be more flexible because the cases establish the relationship between subject, verb, and object.

Thus, ‘I feed the dog’ is fine, ‘The dog feed I’ has a somewhat faux-Shakespearean feel to it, and, ‘The dog I feed’ means something else entirely, at least at first glance. In German, ‘Ich füttere den Hund’ and, ‘Den Hund füttere ich’ can be used interchangeably without anyone wondering whether or not the speaker is about to put on tights and start talking to an invisible auditorium.

In the example given above, is our protagonist’s preparation quick and quiet, or is she preparing herself so that her passage through the room is quick and quiet? The split infinitive implies the latter, whereas moving the adverbs to the end of the sentence makes it more ambiguous, but the split infinitive phrase remains awkward to read because the elements of the verb are separated from one another.

Therefore, split infinitives, although not necessarily bad grammatically speaking, are often bad stylistically and, if possible, a sentence should be reworked to avoid them. They naturally occur in speech, however, so it would be fine to incorporate them there as long as they do not interfere with the tone of the dialogue.

Now for dangling participles. Dangling participles can often go unnoticed, but sometimes they are impossible to ignore.

Wrestler lying on the ground and clutching his groin.
Pow! Right in the participles.

A participle is another form of verb. In English, there are past participles and present participles as well as participles used in verbal compounds. For the purposes of this post, we will be concentrating on present participles, which are used to create sentences with the progressive or continuous aspect. They take the -ing ending and show something ongoing. The present indefinite (simple present) I run becomes the present progressive I am running or the past progressive I was running, for example. The running is the participle, and is called the present participle even when the meaning of the whole phrase is set in a different tense, as in I was running.

Participles are used to show the action of a sentence as it unfolds, and they allow the writer to decide how and when to reveal information with a degree of flexibility.

I fell and broke my leg when I was running down the road.

Running down the road, I fell and broke my leg.

The sentences are very similar but present different aspects of the event as the focus. In the second example, the present participle running comes first, instantly breathing life and action into the sentence. Although it is very easy to over-egg the participle pudding, these constructions are excellent for varying sentence structure and placing the focus on an action.

Holding my breath, I careened through the rapids.

Gritting her teeth, Jane hauled herself across the finishing line.

You can also vary tense and aspect more. Here is a sentence beginning with a past participle:

Followed by Carruthers’ sinister laughter, I fled from the manor.

‘But,’ I hear you cry, ‘those participles don’t look dangly: they look pert and firm and determined!’ Indeed they are, but look at this poor specimen:

Squatting at the end of a rotten terrace, I found the flat quite affordable.

Now, what the author presumably means is that the flat was squatting at the end of a rotten terrace, but if we rearrange the sentence so that the main clause precedes the subordinate clause, it becomes clear that what the sentence actually says is that the speaker is squatting at the end of a rotten terrace. In order to capture what the author really means to say, it should read,

Squatting, as it did, at the end of a rotten terrace, the flat was quite affordable.

Consider the following:

Sunbathing in the park, the trees were lovely.

Looking from my window, the clouds gathered and thundered.

Stepping outside, the sun began to shine again.

What we have, rather than a record of someone’s experience with the weather, is a surreal world in which trees sunbathe, clouds gather inside people’s houses, and the sun itself feels the need to hide indoors, possibly to hide from those sunbathing trees. Rearranged, we can see the effects of these dangling participles (sunbathing, looking, and stepping):

It all starts with sunbathing trees and then, before you know it, a set of knife-wielding ears starts running amok, stabbing anyone the lute-harp hasn’t kidnapped.

The trees were lovely, sunbathing in the park.

The clouds gathered and thundered, looking from my window.

The sun began to shine again, stepping outside.

These sentences would be very easy to correct and are fairly easy to understand with a minimum of context, but the task of a writer is not to provide the bare minimum of information. Avoiding dangling participles helps maintain clarity as well as the integrity of the story.

With that out of the way, it is now time to truly and without further ado (after all, what is the point of having a blog about writing worlds when we have not yet looked at any?) actually look at a fictional world and how it was built. Next time.

2 thoughts on “Split Infinitives and Dangling Participles

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