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Split Infinitives

It takes boldness to split an infinitive.

By
Mignon Fogarty
August 20, 2010
Episode #236

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split infinitives

You may have heard a rule that you shouldn't split infinitives, but I'm here to tell you it's not a real rule, and the idea itself is based on a shaky foundation.

What Are Infinitives?

To understand split infinitives, we first have to clearly define the word “infinitive.” Wikipedia defines “infinitive” as the unmarked form of a verb (1), but you really need examples to understand what that means. In English, there are two kinds of infinitives: bare infinitives and full infinitives. Bare infinitives are the kind of verbs you usually see in a dictionary, such as

  • go

  • sprinkle

  • run

  • split

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?

The safest choice is to avoid splitting infinitives.

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.”

The Latin Origin of the Split Infinitive Rule

Many sources say the origin of the misguided rule against splitting infinitives in English comes from a devotion to Latin that was prominent in the late 1800s. The Victorian Era was a time of great language debate, with dueling dictionaries and people pontificating about language. The conventional wisdom is that people decided that because infinitives can't be split in Latin, they shouldn't be split in English (2).

One of the earliest printed instances of the rule against splitting infinitives comes from an 1864 book called The Queen's English by Henry Alford (3), and through the magic of Google Books, you can see the entry yourself. Alford was the Dean of Canterbury. He had given a series of lectures on language and compiled them into a casual book, which became quite popular.

On split infinitives, Alford wrote, “A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives the instance 'to scientifically illustrate.' But surely this practice is entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me that we ever regard the 'to' of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And when we have the choice between the two forms of expression 'to scientifically illustrate' and 'to illustrate scientifically,' there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.”

The Common Usage Argument Against Split Infinitives

It may be that Alford was influenced by the unsplittable Latin infinitives, but in his book, he invokes common usage as his reason. It's also odd that he says, “surely this practice is entirely unknown to English speakers and writers,” when he's responding to a correspondent who describes doing it.

If you tried invoking common usage today to argue with the people who think you shouldn't split infinitives, you likely wouldn't get very far. They'd probably say people also use the word “irregardless,” but that doesn't make it right.

Actually, other writers started arguing with Alford about his assertion pretty quickly, but for some reason his dictum caught on with teachers who started teaching it as a strict rule, and some continue to do so to this day, even though you won't find a modern grammar book or style guide that says you should never split an infinitive.

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