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Split Infinitives

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  Ed Good  —  Grammar Tips
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Perhaps no “rule” of grammar sparks more controversy than the “rule” against splitting infinitives. Leading experts on the English language, however, point out that the split infinitive appeared in the great works of English as early as the thirteenth century, with two constructions appearing in the works of Chaucer.

But first, Trekkies take note. Here’s an example of a split infinitive:

To boldly go where no man has gone before.

The infinitive is to go. It is split with the adverb boldly.

The problem of the split infinitive comes up only when the infinitive appears with the preposition to and an accompanying adverb or adverbial phrase. If you put these adverbial words between the to and the verb, you have split the infinitive. If you keep the to and the verb together, you have refused to split the infinitive, and you must put the adverbial expression in one of three places:

1. before the infinitive 2. after the infinitive 3. sometimes at the very end of the expression.

Refusing to Split

Most writers prefer the before-the-infinitive and end-of-the-expression approaches.

I had no wish actually to read it. (adverb before the infinitive)

It became urgent to demarcate accurately Alaska’s eastern boundary. (adverb after the infinitive) (This and the preceding example appear in New Fowler, p. 737.)

For investors to take a risk voluntarily, they must know the risks involved. (adverb at the end of the expression)

The Big Fuss

So why the big fuss over splitting infinitives?

Tempers originally flared, no doubt, because of the relationship between English and Latin. In Latin, an infinitive verb appears as one word. For example, to love is amâre, and to grow is crescere.

Thus, in Latin, one simply cannot split up the infinitive; it’s already connected; it’s indivisible. Consequently, in the early history of the English language, split infinitives rarely appeared in writing. But in 1812 Byron penned, “to slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,” and in 1895 Hardy wrote, “She wants to honestly and legally marry that man.”

Barriers began to crumble.

What’s the Rule?

So what, then, is the current state of the “rule”?

We can profit from the views of R.W. Burchfield, editor of New Fowler:

There can be no doubt that there continues to be a noticeable reluctance to split infinitives both in the national press and in the work of many of our most respected writers. Thus in a 1987 issue of the Daily Telegraph [we find]: there will be a further disposition seriously to underestimate the strength . . . of the United States. . . . Such placing of the adverb is overwhelmingly the norm at present. New Fowler, p. 737.

Thus, according to Henry Fowler, keeper of the Queen’s English, top writers reluctantly split infinitives. But they do indeed split. Let’s pick up with Mr. Burchfield’s remarks:

When Bernard Levin, the well-known columnist in The Times, wrote (24 Oct. 1991) he was in Vilnius to formally close down the headquarters of the Lithuanian KGB, the use [of the split infinitive prompted an outcry and] called for special comment in the Diary of that newspaper two days later . . . : “The most diligent search can find no modern grammarian to pedantically, to dogmatically, to invariably condemn a split infinitive.” These lighthearted comments draw attention to the irrational nervousness that many people feel when they are in danger of breaking a terrible taboo.

Mr. Burchfield continues: “What then are the present-day facts?” He points out that most writers try to avoid splitting and place the adverb before the infinitive. Examples abound:

Before-the-Infinitive Approach

The threat of abolition enabled the Livingstone administration briefly to ride the inevitable wave of popular indignation it caused.

I had no wish actually to read it.

Burchfield points out that writers less commonly put the adverb after the infinitive:

After-the-Infinitive Approach

It became urgent to demarcate accurately Alaska’s eastern boundary.

Little or no effort has been made to explicate clearly the mechanisms through which these needs [can be satisfied].

But Burchfield cautions against “rigid adherence to a policy of nonsplitting,” for it “can sometimes lead to unnaturalness or ambiguity”:


[England and the U.S. made a grave mistake] in not combining to forbid flatly hostilities.

[England and the U.S. made a grave mistake] in not combining flatly to forbid hostilities.

Go Ahead and Split It

[England and the U.S. made a grave mistake] in not combining to flatly forbid hostilities.

Examples of Splitting

Burchfield further points out the trend among top writers to split infinitives, where their objectives might be to avoid unnaturalness, to avoid ambiguity, or perhaps even to stress the adverb. Following are some examples from Burchfield’s “substantial file . . . collected since 1987”:

That’s when you have to really watch yourself. —Quarto, 1981 (UK).

It led Cheshires to finally abandon publishing fiction at all. —B. Oakley, 1985 (Australia).

The goal is to further exclude Arafat. U.S. News & World Report, 1986 (United States).

Strunk & White

Other leading authorities agree that the “rule” against splitting infinitives is not really a rule but a preference. Messrs. Strunk and White have this to say:

There is precedent from the fourteenth century down for interposing an adverb between to and the infinitive it governs, but the construction should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb. Strunk & White, p. 58.

Elsewhere, the same authors observe that more than “unusual stress on the adverb” can justify splitting the infinitive. Sometimes splitting produces a better sentence:

The split infinitive is another trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook. Some infinitives seem to improve on being split . . . . “I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.” The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear, the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible. Put the other way, the sentence becomes stiff, needlessly formal. Strunk & White, p. 78.

Views of The Oxford English Dictionary

In 1998, the Oxford English Dictionary ended the centuries-old ban on splitting infinitives. Take a look at this press release:

OLD SAYBROOK, Conn. (AP), October 26, 1998.

It’s time to officially abandon the rule against the split infinitive.

Oxford dictionaries, makers of the self-proclaimed “last word on words,” has ended its centuries-old ban on splitting infinitives.

Some language purists are unhappy with the change. They say the infinitive—a verb with “to” in front of it—always should remain joined. For example, the infinitive “to jump” should be modified as “to jump quickly,” they say, and never “to quickly jump.”

“I do think it’s a great sadness that the Oxford dictionary is doing this,” said Loftus Jestin, head of the English department at Central Connecticut State University. “Hearing split infinitives is like listening to Mozart when the pianist keeps hitting all the wrong notes.”

“I do not dine with those who split infinitives,” said Samuel Pickering, a University of Connecticut English professor who is considered to be the inspiration for the lead role in “The Dead Poets Society.”

The change is included in the new Oxford American Desk Dictionary, which came out last month. The dictionary says the prohibition on split infinitives can lead to “awkward, stilted sentences.”

Frank Abate, editor in chief of Oxford’s U.S. dictionaries program in Old Saybrook, says the rule is arbitrary. The rule has its basis in Latin, and as Abate points out, we don’t speak Latin.

“There’s essentially no validity to it,” Abate said.

Random House, Strunk and White[,] and others already have given their approval to split infinitives.

But this is Oxford after all, publisher of the venerable unabridged Oxford English Dictionary—the hallowed 20-volume, 138-pound, 21,730-page O.E.D. It is considered by many the authority on the King’s English.

Oxford University Press first lifted the moratorium in its British edition last year.

Cindy Butos, assistant director of the writing center at Trinity College in Hartford, is thrilled with the change.

“I think it’s terrific,” she said. She said it frees people from an unnecessary rule that doesn’t contribute to the English language.

So what’s the best advice? You can follow the rule in New Fowler: Split to stress the adverb, to avoid ambiguity, or to avoid writing a construction that simply sounds unnatural. Or if you want to split them all, you have the Oxford English Dictionary on your side.

But if you write for one who does not dine with those who split infinitives or for one who likens them to Mozart played with the wrong notes, I’d advise you not to split.

Hard Copy

You may download our entire discussion of the Parts of Speech. Simply download the Grammar eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech.


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Next: Verb Function 3 - Present-Participial Phrase, -ing Phrase

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