Each year around this time, we’re subjected to umpteen reprintings of the “Yes, Virginia” essay that originally ran in The Sun, a New York newspaper, in September of 1897. It was a reply to 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon asking if there really is a Santa Claus.
You’d think it was the only question that the editors of The Sun ever answered. Not so. In fact, The Sun answered plenty of reader questions. In 1903 a father wrote asking how to cool off his son’s obsession with baseball. In 1887 a group of young men requested “a few hints or directions on osculations, and how to kiss a young lady gracefully.” In 1895 a young lady wanted to know if it would be inappropriate to ride her bicycle on the beach in her bathing suit. (Answer, in part: “We see no more objection to our fair friend wheeling between dips in her bathing dress than to her bathing in it.”)
And, in 1898, a reader asked The Sun to weigh in on the subject of split infinitives. That’s the practice of sticking one or more words between “to” and a verb, as in “to boldly go” rather than “to go boldly.”
“Here is a matter for gooseflesh,” wrote The Sun, “There are rigid and righteous souls that look upon the split infinitive as the unpardonable sin against the English language. Our correspondent is right in depending upon usage as the final court of appeals. Undoubtedly the best usage has been against the insertion of an adverb between the infinitive and its sign. It seems to us, however, as it seems to our correspondent, that some contemporary writers are fond of splitting the infinitive, or at least are not afraid of doing so. No doubt diligent search would discover split infinitives in the works of writers of this century whose example is more authoritative or encouraging than that of contemporary authors.
“Be that as it may, the fact remains that the split infinitive, while regarded as accursed by the grammarians, seems to be coming into some use, and is found in respectable writers. Usage is subject to variations. The split infinitive may establish itself in spite of the exorcists. If it is found convenient and useful it will make its way. To like it or abhor it is useless. It will succeed or fail on its merits or in spite of its demerits.”
Still, the editors suggested, one should be chary of split infinitives.
“If the literary factories produce them in large quantities they will become so common that we can all have one. Now they are a sort of luxury for those who can afford to use them. A reasonable conservatism and a polite scepticism should be brought to bear upon the split infinitive. The split infinitive is hardly a positive crime. It may come to be regarded as highly respectable. In this year, 1898, it still has a slouching and ill-reared appearance. Don’t associate with it too much.”
As Virginia O’Hanlon’s father had told her the previous year: “If you see it in the Sun it’s so.”
O’Hanlon outlived The Sun, which folded in 1950. She saw the advent of movies and radio and television. She was around for the start and the end of The Beatles, and was still with us when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. Along the way she earned a master’s degree in education from Columbia University and a doctorate from Fordham University. Her dissertation was on The Importance of Play.
In 73 pages it contains only one split infinitive.