What does it mean to split an infinitive?

I recently came across another list of 20 errors writers make. In this blog space, we have dealt with two previous list of 20 errors based on national studies of first-year writing: Twenty Most Common Errors (Connors and Lunsford 1986) and The Top Twenty (Lunsford and Lunsford 2006). We also examined the results of a smaller study by Sloan of errors in writing by first-year students and by professional writers.

This new list, “20 Common Grammatical Errors and Grammar Mistakes to Avoid,” is by a professional writer, editor, and publisher, Derek Haines, and his audience is writers hoping to publish. There is overlap with the previous lists in many of the errors Haines highlights, though he singles out some usage errors, such as confusing less and fewer. Surprisingly, Haines includes on his list the “error” of splitting infinitives.

This is one of those “myths” of English usage rules, similar to the prohibition of ending a sentence with a preposition (a topic we’ll take up in a future post). As Ben Mudrak writes, it is “a pervasive yet unnecessary ‘rule’ of English writing.” And yet Haines is not alone in his condemnation of splitting infinitives. An Internet search will reveal quite a few people who agree with Haines that infinitives should never be split.

To understand the controversy, it’s important to define an infinitive and to provide an example of a split infinitive. An infinitive consists of the marker to plus the plain form of a verb (to see, to go). Probably the most familiar, or famous, split infinitive is the example from the TV show Star Trek: to boldly go. In fact many discussions of split infinitives cite this example, including two articles written on the 50th anniversary of the show. (merriam-webster.com and arrantpedantry.com)

In the example from Star Trek, we see that a modifier has been put (or misplaced) between the to marker and the verb form: to boldly go.

Commentators and English language scholars disagree on where the rule originated, though many rules that don’t make sense in English came from the movement to formalize and regularize the language (and distinguish its use by elites versus that of commoners or vulgarians). This was the time many of the proscriptions which make up traditional (or prescriptive) grammar arose. These prescriptivists applied the terms and rules of Latin (and sometimes Greek) grammar to English grammar, but the languages are not analogous or comparable. In Latin and Greek, infinitives are one word and thus cannot be split. This is not true in English.

The prohibition against splitting infinitives has been traced to the nineteenth century. Merriam-webster.com cites 1803 as the date of the earliest record of “someone issuing an edict about the split infinitive . . . in John Comly’s English Grammar Made Easy to the Teacher and Pupil: ‘An adverb should not be placed between a verb of the infinitive mood and the preposition to which governs it.’ Henry Hitchings, in The Language Wars, cites an 1834 magazine article as an example of an early condemnation of the practice. It was not until the 1890s that the term split infinitive was invented, and again Hitchings and Merriam-Wesbster.com cite different sources and dates for the first use of the term.

Although no actual grammar rule exists that prohibits the splitting of infinitives, some language professionals argue that a split infinitive will always be incorrect, and many writing handbooks will state it is better “to keep the parts of infinitives together” because they “are widely regarded as a grammatical unit that should not be split” (Little, Brown 288). Though this may not be as widely regarded by all language professionals, so many language authorities feel so strongly about the issue that one commentator writes “a safe suggestion would be to avoid splitting infinitives as long as it does not detract from the sentence’s meaning or make the wording sound awkward.”

Consider these as examples:

Awkward:  The weather service expected temperatures to not rise.

Revised:  The weather service expected temperatures not to rise. (Little, Brown 288).

Awkward:  We would like to quickly conclude the proceedings.

Revised:  We would like to conclude the proceedings quickly. (crosstalk.cell.com)

AwkwardShe agreed to quickly and quietly leave the room.

Revised:  She agreed to leave the room quickly and quietly. (getitwriteonline.com)

The examples below, however, show that trying to follow the rule of not splitting the infinitive can lead to awkward or unclear sentences:

Even in the twenty-first century, human beings are unable to fully comprehend the vastness and complexity of the universe.

Even in the twenty-first century, human beings are unable fully to comprehend the vastness and complexity of the universe. (This construction is just plain awkward.)

Even in the twenty-first century, human beings are unable to comprehend the vastness and complexity of the universe fully. (Here the modifier fully is very far removed from the word it modifiescomprehend.)            (examples and commentary from getitwriteonline.com)

Some experts point out, as Tuten does in the examples above, that the adverb “splitting” the infinitive modifies the verb form, so this construction is perfectly acceptable as well as clear and less awkward than other variations that try to avoid splitting the infinitive. Indeed, some writers see split infinitives as a stylistic choice to emphasize an adverb. (Most experts agree that it is not wrong to split infinitives that have auxiliaries to be or to have.)

Is that famous split infinitive from Star Trek, to boldly go, an example of the stylistic use of the device or is it just so familiar that it sounds natural? If we unseparated the marker to from the verb form go, we could phrase it as to go boldly or boldly to go – definitely phrasing we’re not accustomed to. Jonathon Owen writing in arrantpedantry.com calls these variations “clunky,” and even goes so far as to propose that they “ruin the rhythm of the phrase”: “‘To BOLDly GO’ is a nice iambic bimeter, meaning that it has two metrical feet, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable—duh-DUN duh-DUN.” (See the discussion of rhythm in an earlier post.)

Despite the general acceptance of split infinitives, some writers and editors (such as Tuten and “we purists” at getitwriteonline.com) are “still loath to split an infinitive” and would rather rewrite the sentence to avoid the infinitives altogether: Here is how they would recast one of the sentences above:

Even in the twenty-first century, human beings cannot fully comprehend the vastness and complexity of the universe.

Authors have felt equally strongly about splitting infinitives, particularly when purist editors have “corrected” their split infinitives. Norquist in his article “Understanding Split Infinitives” quotes the reactions two writers to such editing. The first is Raymond Chandler:

“Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.” (Raymond Chandler, letter to Edward Weeks, Jan. 18, 1947. Quoted by F. MacShane in Life of Raymond Chandler, 1976)

The second is the playwright George Bernard Shaw. As we saw in the post on the apostrophe, Shaw had strong opinions about the English language and usage and said this when he learned that an editor had “tinkered” with his infinitives: “I don’t care if he is made to go quickly, or to quickly go–but go he must.”

To split an infinitive or to not split an infinitive? That is a question you must answer based on your usage and stylistic preferences.

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