Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fun With Grammar - To Boldly Split Infinitives

If you are of a certain age, you were taught that splitting infinitives was against the rules and warned sternly against doing it. Except it's not a real rule and language is richer when we listen for the artistry in the language.

First, what are Infinitives?
Full infinitives are made up of two words, usually putting the word “to” in front of the bare verb:
  • to go
  • to sprinkle
  • to run
  • to split
What Is a Split Infinitive? 
A split infinitive puts an adverb between the two parts of the full infinitive. “To generously sprinkle” is a split infinitive because “generously” splits the word “to” from the word “sprinkle.”
If you want to remember what a split infinitive is, just remember what might be the most famous example: Star Trek's “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” “To boldly go” is a split infinitive. “Boldly” splits “to go.”
I like the explanation about how this started by Liz Bureman.
So what made us start the crusade against the split infinitive? Most scholars trace it back to the early 19th century, when they were inventing English grammar. Some guy named Henry Alford (who wrote the book The King's English) decided that since you can't split infinitives in Latin, you shouldn't be splitting infini­tives in English.
Because English and Latin are totally the same.
Splitting infinitives doesn't hinder comprehension, so there's really no reason to hold back. 

Writers can be especially enthusiastic about well-intentioned grammar cops changing our art. Detective fiction legend Raymond Chandler worked up a really great rant about a proofreader who changed his split infinitives.
"By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, G*d damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have."
That's not to say there aren't any occasions you shouldn't use it - splitting infinitives with negations just sounds weird. "I want to not see you anymore." But by and large, modern usage has relaxed in this regard. Split away!
Add to Technorati Favorites
Bookmark and Share


  1. Good post. I admit I split my infinitives all the time. I say write 'em however they flow best. Except in instances where confusion is a risk, the split infinitive is a minor bobble at best and a dying rule at worst.

  2. Could this also be what led to the "no adverbs" rule, I wonder?

  3. My teachers were also wrong about the 'no serial comma' rule. I don't hold it against them - I expect them to be right, not practical. Out here in the real world, there are different criteria.

  4. Ack! Today it's split infinitives--what will it be tomorrow? Misplaced modifiers? Dangling participles? Criminal! :D :D :D

  5. Heh. As a technical writer, I find that serial commas make lists explicit, remove all doubt, and please me immeasurably. ;)

  6. Old habits die hard. I feel I've done something wrong when I split an infinitive.

  7. I love serial commas; however, I thought the modifying adverb was supposed to go before the modify-ee. Oy. Well, it's a good thing I'm in love with my Chicago Manual of Style, if not Chicago.
    To go boldly where no um, one, ...well, it could have worked just fine. But, like, the sixties were conformist for anything. Just not done.