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Split Infinitives

The "rule" against splitting infinitives appeared in the 1800s, but it wasn't initially put forth as a rule. See what was on Henry Alford's mind when he advised against the construction.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
February 6, 2015
Episode #454

Page 1 of 2

split infinitives

When adults are ambushed with the concept of grammar, for example, when they meet someone who goes by the name Grammar Girl, they often reach into the depths of their grade-school memories and come up with something along the lines of “Don’t split infinitives, right?”

Indeed. Splitting infinitives is a grammar topic, but the “rule” you may have learned against splitting infinitives isn’t as hard-and-fast as you might imagine. 

What Are Infinitives?

Infinitives are the two-word forms of verbs such as to read, to write, and to illustrate.

  • to read

  • to write

  • to illustrate

What Is a Split Infinitive?

The safest choice is to avoid splitting infinitives.

When you split an infinitive, you put something (usually an adverb) between the two parts:

  • to diligently read
     
  • to happily write
     
  • to scientifically illustrate

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 Origin of the Split Infinitive Rule

The idea that you shouldn’t put an adverb in the middle of an infinitive was mentioned earlier but was most prominently introduced by Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury, in his 1864 book The Queen’s English. Through the magic of Google Books, you can see the entry yourself.

Alford didn’t state it a rule though. Instead, in response to a correspondent who liked phrases such as “to scientifically illustrate,” he said he saw “no good reason” to split the infinitive. One reason Alford gave for his belief was that nobody was doing it (“. . . this practice is entirely unknown to English speakers and writers.”), but the Oxford English Dictionary disagrees, reporting that split infinitives were widespread at the time.

In fact, many respected writers, both before and after Alford’s time, have employed split infinitives, including Thomas Cromwell, Daniel Defoe, Lord Byron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Gaskell, Benjamin Franklin, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The Fowler Brothers on the Split Infinitive Rule

From this shaky start, Alford’s opinion about split infinitives somehow made its way into the general consciousness and English school books, and it was taught as a rule to generations of children—and journalists, according the Fowler brothers, authors of the popular and enduring 1907 style guide The King’s English. Although the Fowlers found the split infinitive “ugly,” they nevertheless felt that prohibitions had gone too far. They wrote, “The 'split' infinitive has taken such hold upon the consciences of journalists that, instead of warning the novice against splitting his infinitives, we must warn him against the curious superstition that the splitting or not splitting makes the difference between a good and a bad writer."

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