I don't know why we like our rules so much. People seem to relish in them. Like they need rules for direction. For comfort. For clarity.
The Ten Commandments. Diets. Grammar.
And while it's easy to rationalize why somebody shouldn't covet their neighbors wife, why shouldn't I split infinitives? Or strand prepositions?
I don't know, is what I've always heard.
I always thought these answers were queer. And so, it wasn't to my surprise that I found the history of split infinitives and preposition stranding to be equally strange.
In the 1750's and early 1760's, a new form of English was being spoken among London's in-crowd. This style of English is the one that we still use in America, today. And as more people began to speak this hip, new English, grammar and style books began popping-up.
In 1762, a man named Robert Lowth published a book called, A Short Introduction to English Grammar. The only real problem, it seemed, with Lowth writing this style book was that he was a Latin scholar. Not an English scholar. Even more unfortunate is the consequence that this book remained as the textbook for grammar until early in the 20th century.
In his book, Lowth handed-down some rules that, while are useful in Latin and its relatives, were inappropriate for the Germanic-based language of English. The two famous rules that he prescribed in his text, and are taught to this day are: one shouldn't strand prepositions; and two, that one shouldn't split infinitives.
STRANDING A PREPOSITION: In grammar, a preposition is a word that indicates a "relationship" between a noun (its object) and some other part of the sentence. Typically, a preposition comes before the noun, it is in relation to. Examples are: about, at, before, by down, for, from, in, of, on, out, over, round, since, through, to under, up, with.
Lowth's most famous rule of traditional grammar states that one should "never put a preposition at the end of a sentence". The struggle here is that idioms are often dominant, and sometimes stranding a preposition simply works in common conversation and familiar styles of writing. Only fancy lads don't strand prepositions. And, honestly, it doesn't sound any better. It's not more eloquent, or perspicacious, as Lowth thought. "That's the song I'm tired of" (stranding a preposition). Versus, "I am getting mildly perturbed at that cacophonous song" (Lowth's "proper" sentence).
SPLIT INFINITIVES: A split infinitive occurs in English when an adverb or adverbial phrase is inserted between to and a verb in its infinitive form. Examples: to run, to go, to play, to write, to sing.
Lowth's grammar prescribes that infinitives cannot be split. And coming from his Latin background, it's easy to see where this comes from: It is not possible in Latin to split an infinitive. In Latin, an infinitive is one word. However, in English, it is not. Infinitives in English are two words, as in "to split".
Hanging on the component of practicality and function, Robert Lowth's prescriptive grammar is impractical. In the end, it is a clear illustration that everything has a history. Even rules.
And, examining these small and large histories should be a mandatory component in the education of every learner. Afterall, our understanding of language is directly correlative to our understanding of the world.
The purpose of language is to communicate. And while that is all too apparent - to the point of having stated no point at all - it is often overlooked. Creating demarcations in language is important: irony is different than coincidence - and it's important to know why or why not we shouldn't strand prepositions. The purpose of language is to communicate clearly.
And clearly, Robert Lowth's prescriptive walls of grammar should come falling down.