Made in America
In the Google Books corpus of American publications, the construction help + bare infinitive, an American innovation, overtook its older equivalent with the marked infinitive around 1982 and has since skyrocketed in frequency. In Britain, help+BI, often still termed an Americanism or “informal usage,” is now favored by a substantial number of native speakers, though by a far less percentage than across the Atlantic.
Source: McE-X 2005, 164.
This construction is indeed an American innovation and a rather early one. Only eighteen years after the Declaration of Independence the first usage of help+BI appeared in an American newspaper:
A correſpondent obſerves that the public councils of this country can never be expected to proſper till the ſupreme executive ſhall employ the paragraphiſt of the General Advertiſer of this morning to help him keep the ſecrets of ſtate. — Gazette of the United States & Evening Advertiser (Philadelphia), March 05, 1794.
Further examples are sparse until a flurry in the late 1830s, almost exclusively from Vermont:
I would have voted at all hazards, and did vote, as the journals will show, on the last vote of the session, to help make a quorum and against adjournment. — Speech by Rep. Henry A. Wise (VA), The Charlotte Journal (NC), 4 March 1836.
…for they have set our manufactures ahead, and helped make us independent of Europe.— Burlington Free Press (VT), 4 Aug. 1837.
My danger was not over, for the women, considering the secret of my hiding place too weighty for their weak abilities, had called upon their neighbours to help them keep it. — Vermont Phœnix (Brattleboro), 29 Dec. 1837.
I often express a wish to my teacher that I could go to Virginia, and invite some of those kind people to help me find my dear dear father. — Letter from orphaned girl in Massachusetts, North Carolina Standard (Raleigh), 7 Feb. 1838.
We wish them [outstanding accounts] paid in order to help keep up our assortment. Burlington Free Press (VT), 14 June 1839.
Find out what the abolitionists are doing now, at the North! Help them do it.
If you want your abolitionist news fresh, help make it! — The Voice of Freedom (Montpelier VT), 22 June 1839
May their own beards be taken off by the aid of something more to their satisfaction than the razor-strap that, in an evil hour, I helped make for the comfort of my own toilet. — Vermont Telegraph (Brandon VT), 20 Nov. 1839.
By the mid-1840's, newspaper writers across the country were using the construction, but unless Rep. Wise of Virginia spent considerable time in New England unknown to historians, assigning an origin to this region remains only a tantalizing possibility.
Pro-verbs, Pronouns, and the Passive
The use of the marked infinitive is strongly favored even in America when the dependent verb is the pro-verb do:
I am grateful for the opportunity to tell their story, and I am grateful for—and blessed in—all the people who helped me to do so…
Nevertheless, there are educated native speakers who choose the bare infinitive:
In August 1997 I decided that the only way I could write this book would be to give up virtually all my lingering university commitments. I thank everybody who helped me do so.
The marked infinitive is obligatory when it is the antecedent of the dummy subject it:
It helps to be given choices, and not told what is best for me… It helps me to know more about the person who is helping me.
But not when the pronoun has a real antecedent:
…that minibus is one of the most important things in the senior citizens community to me, because it helps bring the elderly into town and it helps take them to the doctors.
The marked infinitive is also obligatory when help is in the passive voice:
MITSUBISHI ELECTRIC was helped to complete a major project in Taiwan after South African consultants took over from an inexperienced Japanese team.
The verbs need and dare have been considered at least semi-modals in taking a bare infinitive.
He dare not go.
He need not go.
Dare is interesting in that while "He dare not go" sounds like a line in a bad nineteenth century melodrama, "Would you dare say that to him?" has no such allusions and is quite current and can be used both with and without the infinitive marker. This usage most closely parallels that of help.
It's all semantics
A rapid rise in usage of help+BI does not suggest large numbers of Americans discovering a long lost sense of to help and suddenly applying it in everyday speech. Nevertheless, some have attempted to tease apart some semantic distinction between the two uses. One scholar suggests this minimal pair [McE-X 2005, 170]:
Mary helped John eat the pudding. Otherwise the leftovers won't be good tomorrow.
Mary helped John to eat the pudding. John is unable to feed himself unassisted.
The distinction that while Mary helped John by eating a share of the cake, she actively helps John perform an action himself, even if she's doing all the work.
For the first "no leftovers" option, there are plenty of examples:
I wanted to try something new and different and was intrigued by the Potato Taco on the menu, so that's what I tried out while my husband chose the Tostada Bowl (which I helped him eat!).
Dinner was delicious and we all sang happy birthday to Jack and helped him eat his cake.
And also for the second:
She's helped me to walk and eat, to get showered and dressed, to go to the bathroom. I have needed her. — Lisa Genova, Left Neglected, 2011.
Unfortunately, however, war, accident, and debilitating disease have left many Americans unable to do basic tasks without help, and they have described their experiences with the favored construction:
My hands were injured in the blast, so it was very hard to feed myself early on. My family helped me eat.
His buddies brought milkshakes from the Sonic and fat chili dogs with cheese and helped him eat while his hands were still in the bandages.
I helped him eat and drink as he had motor movement problems and had trouble doing those things on his own.
Carreno explained how the cashier shut down his register during rush hour, cut the man's food into smaller bites and helped him eat.
The supposed distinction evaporates.
The modern usage of help offers two choices of dependent infinitive construction: the bare or marked infinitive. The choice of one over the other is solely a stylistic choice for speakers of American English, and today, most likely for British speakers as well. The choice oftens seems arbitrary:
Not only will this new revenue help to pay for health care, it will help prevent children from taking up smoking in the first place. 1997
Headline: Mondo Helped me to find the best job, Expecially Mary Schadler
Text: Mary helped me find the right job and kept me updated with the whole process…
There is no possible reason for choosing one infinitival form over another except the writer's choice.