The Infinite Split: Why Split Infinitives Can Be Just Fine

Mon, 25 Mar 2013 16:00:28 +0000

I am sure it has happened to all of us, at one point or another; we are writing a story and the dreaded red squiggle appears. It proclaims that we have committed some great grammar sin and created a split infinitive.

Today, I am going to tell you why split infinitives are not that bad. Before we get into that, it would probably be useful to know what split infinitives are. At its most basic level, an infinitive comes in two forms, which are focused around action words like ‘go’ or ‘run’. In this one-word form they are called bare infinitives, or, as I like to call them, verbs. When a writer connects a ‘to’ before this bare infinitive (to go, to run), it is transformed into a full infinitive, and grammar snobs the world over rejoice.

A split infinitive comes along when an adverb separates the ‘to’ and the verb, thus inspiring the snobs to snarl angrily. It is quite funny to see in action.

The most famous split infinitive comes from the TV show Star Trek. The introduction to every episode original series contained the phrase “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Even today, people use this to mock the show. I go to the conventions; I have seen it first hand. However, I am happy to write that those mockers are wrong. Today a majority of grammarians agree that split infinitives can be okay if the split is not awkward and works to convey meaning. The crew of the Enterprise was not meekly going where no man has gone before, nor were they just meandering in that direction. The word ‘boldly’ is not awkward and helps to clarify the sentence, so the split is just fine.

The 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, one of the most trusted grammar guides, states “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. ‘They expect to more than double their income next year.’ ”

Now, this does not mean you should always split your infinitives. Sometimes, splitting them can make your sentences awkward and overly lengthy. The 4th edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style states “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.” The example they use is to compare “to diligently inquire” with “to inquire diligently.” Personally, I do prefer the full infinitive in this case. It is a little less awkward and emphasizes the action rather than the person’s state of mind while performing the action.

Whether or not to split an infinitive is up to your personal taste when writing, but it is important to not overuse them. Split infinitives are best employed for emphasis. If you include too many then the piece will be tiring to read and look amateurish. They are similar to exclamation points in that way, one every now and then can add energy to the work and make it interesting; use them every sentence and the reader will feel like they have been beaten over the head.

By now, you are probably asking yourselves what the point of this little grammar lesson was. After all, the lesson basically boiled down to “you can if you want to.” The point is that there are still people out there who believe the myth that you can never split infinitives. As Grammar Girl points out in her article on split infinitives, there are even editors who will cut split infinitives based on principle. For this reason, I’m going to give all of you one last bit of advice, avoid split infinitives when writing scholarly papers and job applications. If you use them, let it be in your more casual writing. Are you writing a novel? Go ahead and split away! My main goal in writing this is to give you ammo against the cruel grammar snobs. Now, if any try to criticize your infinitives you can tell them to read this article, or let them know “the 19th century called and it wants its grammar back.” If they know as much about grammar as they say, they will be highly amused.

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