Additional discussion, added 26 June 1998:
In late April, I received an e-mail from Kai Esbensen, who described himself an "editor and amateur convection enthusiast." What follows is the text of my response (his quoted comments are in a different font):
In 1762 an amateur grammarian named Robert Lowth had some extra time on his hands, so he decided to write a book of English language style. Not many books were printed back then, so those that existed had tremendous influence. Robert Lowth's book of style would be no exception.
Robert Lowth sat down and invented his rules. One of the rules Robert Lowth invented, all by himself, was that a person should never split an infinitive. Why? Because you can't split an infinitive in Latin. And Latin, of course, was the Queen Matriarch of All Things Pure and Decent to an amateur grammarian of that time.
Well, you can't "split" an infinitive in Latin because in Latin the infinitive is still a single word. In English, as you know, we use two words to build our infinitives -- leaving ample room in which to insert all sorts of emphasis and modification. Nonetheless, reasoned amateur grammarian Robert Lowth, if you can't split an infinitive in Latin, you shouldn't be able to split an infinitive in English. Effectively robbing English of an otherwise perfectly acceptable expressive nuance.
This is a new explanation for me ... it's interesting and even plausible, but not entirely convincing. Such stories can be apocryphal. Can you provide a reference wherein this story is documented? The explanation I'd heard was that inserting the adverb inside the infinitive implies that a new verb has been created ... one that describes an action as modified by the adverb. Since that implication is generally incorrect, I understood that such usage was discouraged, in general.
Consider this phrase:
"Nobody knows what it means to love -- to really love."
Now apply the no-splitting-the-infinitive rule, and compare:
"Nobody knows what it means to love -- to love really."
Yuck! Let's try the other way:
"Nobody knows what it means to love -- really to love."
That one is slightly better... but the flavor is still much different. It lacks the powerful, almost poetic, flow of the original split-infinitive way.
Obviously, I'm not trying to tell you whether you should split infinitives or not. I just think that the primary function of language is to express thought and feeling. We do not belong to language, it belongs to us. Language is a tool of the people. It is our workhorse. And when a word or phrase needs inventing or modifying, the people shall make it so.
Poetry and aphorisms are well-known for bending the rules of grammar. This hardly seems a very adequate justification for dropping the reluctance to split infinitives altogether. I don't feel overly dogmatic about splitting infinitives, but I certainly want to discourage that usage. I've heard this argument about language being the "tool of the people" before, and I am not entirely unsympathetic to it, in principle. In practice, however, I find that bad usage simply becomes good usage if enough people wish to abuse the rules. Are you REALLY happy with the proliferation of verbs from nouns? Or the use of "irregardless"? Or "ain't"?
When someone asks, "Who is it?" do you say, "It's me!"? If so, you are wrong again. The proper way is "It's I." But that sounds "off" by today's standards. At best, it makes a person sound grossly affected. At worst, it makes a person sound like a vampire.
This one I don't buy, either. Perhaps good usage sounds "affected" when most everyone else is engaging in bad usage. [The connection to vampires is apparently a reference to the fact that Bela Lugosi spoke English well?] However, I don't really worry about that. I prefer to follow basic grammatical rules until I can be shown that doing so hinders communication. If we can all make up the rules as we go, then language becomes babble and communication ceases.
People change, styles change, and language changes. The important thing is for language to keep growing and expanding, offering more and more variation as time goes on. I do not approve when the masses decide that they will confuse "compose" and "comprise", as that deadens the language.
But isn't this latter item a contradiction with your egalitarian approach? If the masses want to do this, who are you to gainsay their wishes?
For the record, he's never responded to my reply.
I've received numerous e-mails from folks as time has gone by, gleefully telling me that some authority figure or another has decided that split infinitives are o.k. The latest (received on 26 October 1999) was from Paul Sirvatka, who said:
After looking through your pet peeves I have one comment...
split infinitives....this last spring (i beleive it was then) Oxford university somebody announced that the official language rule of No split infinitives was no longer a rule. The reasoning was from the latin roots from which we derive our words does not apply to our modern English language. See...
It is official...You might not like it but your pet peeve no longer holds to accepted language usage.
I hope that this does not cause you to violently heave!
I also have provided a copy of the story here, in case the link Paul provided goes away. As Paul has surmised, I don't like it, so I guess I fall in the category of "language purists" referred to in the story. If I'm a dinosaur, at least I'm an unrepentant one. Apparently, the argument Kai proposed about the roots of the rule are associated with Latin, at least according to the pundits of the OED. I'm probably fighting a losing battle, but at least insofar as my own writing is concerned, I'll not use split infinitives.