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Did someone correct your grammar, pointing out - what horror - a split infinitive?
Don't worry. It's perfectly fine to split an infinitive, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
In fact, split infinitives usually promote clarity, and sometimes they're necessary. There's definitely no rule that says you can't use them, and a few good reasons why you should.
So why do grammar schoolmarms and pedants still go on about the miseries of the split infinitive?
🙋 What Is a Split Infinitive?
An infinitive is just the plain form of the verb + the subordinator to.
Sometimes we want to add more information to the infinitive, describing its
- Time (recently)
- Place (elsewhere)
- Manner (quickly) or
- Quality (badly)
In that case we attach it to a modifier.
But now you've got an interesting decision: where do you put the modifier?
You've got 3 options. You can place it...
⬅️ Pre-Position: before the infinitive
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➡️ Post-Position: after the infinitive
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⬇️ Inter-Position (aka Split Infinitive): between to and the verb
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🙅♀️ People who condemn split infinitives believe that placing a modifier between to and the verb mutilates the infinitive.
These people are confusing English for Latin. 🤷♀️
📜 English Is Not Latin
The notion that placing a modifier in the ⬇️ Inter-position causes some 'split' in the infinitive is based on a false analogy with Latin.
In Latin, as with most languages, the infinitive form of the verb is just a single word. Consequently, modifiers must come before or after it.
However, in English the infinitive is expressed with not one word but two: the subordinator to and the plain form of the verb.
- Latin: ire → English: to go
- Latin: discere → English: to learn
🙋 How did these people get Latin and English grammars mixed up? ❓
A long time ago, English linguists and grammarians absolutely loved Latin - so much so that some of them even wrote English usage guides in Latin! 📜
They thought that Latin should be a model for English. Whenever they wanted to make a decision about right or wrong, they would refer back to Latin.
But the analogy between Latin and English doesn't work because Latin is a synthetic language whereas English is an analytic language. They're completely different.
- Synthetic languages (e.g., Latin, German, Russian) express grammar through changes to the verb form.
- Analytic languages (e.g., English, Chinese) express grammar through word order.
But don't just take my word for it. Here's what some of the style guides have to say:
💅 What Do the Style Guides Say About Split Infinitives?
All major style guides and usage commentators agree that there is nothing about English grammar that prohibits the split infinitive:
There is no grammatical basis for rejecting split infinitives.
–Encarta World English Dictionary
[The English language gives us] the inestimable advantage of being able to put adverbs where they will be most effective, coloring the verbs to which they apply and becoming practically part of them... If you think a verb cannot be split in two, just call the adverb a part of the verb and see the difficulty will be solved.
—Joseph Lee,"A Defense of the Split Infinitive"
But here's what I don't get: after admitting that there is no grammatical basis for prohibiting the split infinitive, many style guides still advise writers to use it only when necessary.
Although from about 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate the to from the principal verb.
—Chicago Manual of Style
Even though there has never been a rational basis for objecting to the split infinitive, the subject has become a fixture of folk belief about grammar. … Modern commentators … usually say it’s all right to split an infinitive in the interest of clarity. Since clarity is the usual reason for splitting, this advice means merely that you can split them whenever you need to.
–Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary
...commentators recognize that there is nothing grammatically wrong with the split infinitive, but they are loath to abandon a subject that is so dear to the public at large. Therefore, they tell us to avoid split infinitives except when splitting one improves clarity.
–Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage
If a split is easily fixed by pitting the adverb at the end of the phrase and the meaning remains the same, then avoiding the split is the best course.
—The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style
Splitting an infinitive isn’t considered the grammatical sin it used to be, but most careful writers still don’t split infinitives unless they have a reason to do so.
—Jean Eggenschwiler, Writing: Grammar, Usage, and Style
It seems that everyone knows that there is no basis for the split infinitive prohibition, yet it is still shunned because other people object to it.
Who are these other people, and why are we supposed to play by their rules?
😬 Problems with the Old Rule
Far from promoting clarity, the superstition against the split infinitive actually creates problems of its own.
Consider the following sentences:
Setting aside the old rule, we can fix these two-way ambiguities by placing the modifier of the infinitive next to the verb–i.e., by splitting the infinitive.
In fact, the inter-position (i.e., the 'split infinitive') is the only one in which the adverb clearly modifies the verb.
- There's nothing about English grammar that prohibits it, and
- Avoiding the split infinitive actually creates some problems of its own.
Indeed, not only is the split infinitive permissible, it's also in some cases necessary.
💁♂️ Necessary Split Infinitives
For rock-solid proof that there is no basis for the old rule against split infinitives, consider that the split infinitive is not only permissible but is in some cases necessary.
We see this when the modifier is a quantifier or a negative.
|✅||The CEO expects profits to more than double within the next year.|
We can't simply move the modifier more than to the pre- or post-position:
|❌||The CEO expects profits *more than* to double within the next year.|
|❌||The CEO expects profits to double more than within the next year.|
If we wanted to "fix the split," we would have to eliminate the infinitive and re-write the sentence, e.g.:
|😬||The CEO expects that profits will be more than double within the next year.|
|✅||The police officer decided to not give the driver a ticket.|
In this case, it wouldn't be ungrammatical to avoid the split. But moving the negative to the other side of the infinitive changes its meaning.
|🚨||The police officer decided not to give the driver a ticket.|
In this second sentence, the modifier not is modifying not the infinitive but the whole clause. It's like saying the police officer decided to do something else, such as to give the driver a warning.
So feel free to split infinitives. In many cases it's the most natural place, and in some cases it's necessary.
🙅Split Infinitives to Skillfully, Intelligently, and Diligently Avoid
We've seen that the split infinitive is natural and sometimes necessary. However, there are 3 situations in which it's better to avoid the split:
- Wide splits;
- Important modifiers;
Avoid Wide Splits
When the modifier is long and heavy, it's better to move it to the end of the verb phrase.
Otherwise the wide split between to and the verb causes miscue—i.e., it makes it difficult for the reader to recognize the infinitive.
|😬||The teacher helped her to more clearly understand the purpose of the exam.||👌||The teacher helped her to understand the purpose of the exam more clearly.|
|😬||The singer claimed to truly, madly, and deeply love her.||👌||The singer claimed to love her truly, madly, and deeply.|
|😬||I swear to faithfully and to the best of my ability uphold the duties of the presidency.||👌||I swear to uphold the duties of the presidency faithfully and to the best of my ability.|
Avoid Split Infinitives with Important Modifiers
When the modifier contains the most important information in a sentence, we can give it emphasis by moving it to the end of the phrase.
|😬||The flight attendant instructed him to properly follow protocols.||👌||The flight attendant instructed him to follow protocols properly.|
Quantifiers Feel Out of Place Next to a Verb
Quantifiers attach to nouns. They feel out of place next to a verb. The infinitive functions as a noun, so it's natural for a quantifier to be to its left.
|😬||It was difficult for the studentto not ask the question.||👌||It was difficult for the student not to ask the question.|
|😬||It was disrespectful of himto even ask the question.||👌||It was disrespectful of him even to ask the question.|
|😬||It would have been betterto never have asked the question.||👌||It would have been better never to have asked the question.|
|😬||Teachers are called uponto only answer difficult questions.||👌||Teachers are called upon only to answer difficult questions.|
🥳 In Sum
- You can place an adverb on either side of an infinitive or in the middle next to the verb;
- There's nothing wrong with placing the modifier next to the verb – it's often the most natural place, and sometimes it's necessary;
- Avoiding the split infinitive creates ambiguous, unnatural constructions; the space between to and the verb is the only one in which the adverb unambiguously modifies the verb;
- This doesn't mean that you should always split the infinitive.
Clarity and smoothness is more important to your writing than adherence to grammar rules. Choose whichever placement most clearly expresses your intended meaning, and pay no mind to the nitpickers.