One person’s split infinitive is another’s separable transitive phrasal verb

by Julie Frayn on January 26, 2012 in  Writing

One of the authors I have been fortunate to study under pointed out a very bad grammatical habit I have – splitting infinitives.  Now I admit that it’s been a while since I was in school, so I had to Google infinitives for a refresher.  I found myself a bit confused, since all results on split infinitives discussed placing modifiers between “to” and any verb – the most famous example being “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”  But none of my sentences had “to” anywhere in them, so I was left to wonder if they were ever split infinitives to begin with.

I would write pull his pants up, instead of pull up his pants.  Instead of took off her ball cap, I wrote took her ball cap off.  You get the picture.

It turns out “pull up” is a phrasal verb.  Who knew?  Well, I’m sure lots of you knew.  It also turns out that it is a transitive phrasal verb.  Quite a beakful.  It’s transitive because the phrasal verb can be followed by an object (pants).  Splitting up a transitive phrasal verb is perfectly acceptable from a grammatical point of view.  When the object can be placed between the verb and the preposition (pulled his pants up), it has an actual name.  It is a separable transitive phrasal verb.  Sexy, no?

So even though they are not split infinitives and they are grammatically acceptable, I’ve been conditioned – trained, really – to notice when I split a transitive phrasal verb. I must admit it sounds better, results in tighter prose, NOT to separate them, so I keep them together – my new habit.  But once in a while, I hesitate.  Sometimes an unsplit transitive phrasal verb just sounds weird.

I am of two minds on this issue (you might say my opinion is split. Hah, I crack my shell up). How can I be of two minds inside my own head you ask? It’s my mind, it can be what it wants.

Mind 1 – Never split the phrasal verb by slamming an object between the verb and the preposition.

Mind 2 – When the result of mind 1 is odd and stilted, stuff it!  The object I mean.  Between the verb and the preposition, of course.

Mind 2 wins (and the crowd goes wild). Whatever works best with the story, with the voice of any particular piece is going to be what hits the page.  At one point in my novel a girl is touching a boy and he doesn’t want her to.  The un-split transitive phrasal verb is “He batted away her hand.” Does that sound odd to you? It does to me – I like the split version better – “He batted her hand away.”

So my bottom line on transitive phrasal verbs is that I will keep the inseparable when it sounds right. When it doesn’t sound right, I’m not going to just split up those suckers – I’m going to split those suckers up!

(Apologies for repeated use of “transitive phrasal verb,” but it has become my new favorite thing to say and I just can’t help myself).

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Sean P. Farley January 26, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Oh boy. Grammar!?! I just got out of a THREE HOUR math class. Okay, okay. I get it, I really do. I took a low-level English class some years back as a refresher, and holy crap, I was reminded of so many things I’d forgotten. Dangling participles? Conditional clauses? Yikes. I agree with you towards the end of your post, how “batted her hand away” sounds better, even if it’s isn’t grammatically correct. I’m of a firm mindset that if it doesn’t sound right, don’t do it. No one says, “For what did you do that?” NO! It’s “What did you do that for??” If it fits with the story, then absolutely do what sounds right! p.s. I really enjoyed this post! :)


Julie January 27, 2012 at 7:01 am

Math! That’s my other life… :D. After high school I really paid little attention to grammar. Sometimes it shows. But I think it’s okay to bend the “rules.” And kind of fun to break a few.

Sean P. Farley January 28, 2012 at 9:21 am

I, too, let grammar fall by the wayside after high school. Now it’s all I think about. I have to tell you something: we really do take it for granted, the knowledge of grammar and English. I work with deaf students who have no concept of what “sounds right.” They learn English by the strict rules that govern it, and it’s terribly disheartening sometimes because I LOVE reading and writing. “I go store there because to buy milk run out.” That’s a typical sentence by a middle school deaf child (in my experience anyway). I try not to be obsessive about grammar, but it knocks me out sometimes! :)


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