April 23, 2014

Small Things that Matter #3: Infinitives

Most of us who learned grammar in the old days — in other words in the days when public schools actually taught grammar — were regularly treated to admonitions NOT to split infinitives.

But that was long ago, and let’s be honest, these days, only a few remaining purists get their knickers in a twist about an adverb or two lounging in between the “to” and the verb. Admittedly, they are right and should be accorded more respect than they get, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the vast majority, splitting an infinitive is no longer a “problem.”

Unfortunately, too many writers seem not to attend to infinitives at all, and one or two of the little monsters left wandering unattended can wreak havoc on a sentence. In other words, the problem of the infinitive extends beyond the split/don’t split debate and attention should be paid.

Infinitives (split or not) are self-contained units. They lurk like potholes in a road mucking up the progress of the sentence, jarring the reader and generally creating an annoying interruption in the flow.

Consider these sentences:

Families agree to give up lots of time, energy and money to make sure the events are successful as youth from FFA and 4-H groups prepare to show their prize animals and home economics projects.

  • First, I am not sure anything is added by “agree.” The sentence could simple begin “Families give up…” But, if the first part of the sentence is important, then consider making the second part a subordinate clause: “… so they can assure the events are successful.” Or make the same infinitive a gerund: “… making sure the events…”

It’s going to be a tough year to create economic development initiatives. We’re going to continue to have to be creative in all of our partnerships with government.

  • If you ask me, “to continue to have to xx” should be banned from usage for all eternity. How about a gerund: “continue having to be creative…” Or even consider a complete restructuring: “We need to be creative …” (The “continuation” is implied.)

Many people have the wrong impression that you have to give away millions to improve a situation.

  • Here’s another candidate for eradication: “have to xx to xx.” You have to plan to. They have to expect to. We have to want to. The path to eradication in this case is a gerund, which also helps get to the point: “… that improving a situation requires you donate millions.”

Bottom Line: When you spot your sentence being dragged into the abyss by the weight of infinitives, consider one of these alternatives.

  1. a gerund
  2. a subordinate clause
  3. a complete restructuring

What would you do to fix the following infinitive-laden sentences? Keep in mind, stacked up clauses and gerunds are no better solution. The key is variety.

  • His lawyers descended to say that they plan to sue to force another full recount.
  • The council is about to decide to undertake the steps to demolish the hospital, rather than to let it sit there and deteriorate over time.

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Comments

  1. I’m not sure about the rightness of the sentences, but I would be thankful if you corrected them and let me know what I did wrong.

    So:
    His lawyers descended saying they plan to sue so they can force another full recount.

    The council is about to decide undertaking the steps to demolish the hospital, rather than letting it sit there and deteriorate over the time.

  2. Sorry I missed your comment and have taken so long to respond.
    The first sentence is a bit hard for me to help with as I am not sure of the meaning. Do you perhaps mean his lawyers “dissented”?
    In the second sentence, it would be clearer to write: The council will decide whether to demolish the hospital rather than let it deteriorate over time.

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