If you’re not sure whether it’s OK to split infinitives, you’re not alone. To find out what is a split infinitive, read on.
Whether you’re a teacher, writer, or a grammarian who takes pride in using proper English, you’ve probably scratched your head at times wondering whether “to split, or not to split” the infinitive. For those who’ve forgotten what your English teacher taught you back in high school, a split infinitive is a grammatical phrase in which another word has separated the infinitive.
While the grammar police believe that splitting the infinitive is a grave sin, this grammatical construction is often used in everyday spoken English. Read on to find out whether it’s OK to split your infinitives.
What Is an Infinitive?
Before I start with split infinitives, it may be a good idea to recap what an infinitive is. In English, verbals are sometimes used as other parts of speech. There are three types of verbals: participles, gerunds, and infinitives. While participles are verbs that function as adjectives, such as in “The baked bread,” gerunds are formed using a verb as a noun. This verbal always ends in “-ing,” such as in “We went hiking in the mountains on Sunday.”
On the other hand, an infinitive is a verbal that can function as a noun, adverb, or adjective. It is formed by joining the preposition “to” with a verb. In an infinitive, the basic form of the verb is used, namely the first person singular present tense of the verb, such as “run,” “sleep,” and “cook.”
Here are a few examples of infinitives:
- I love to cook in the evenings.
- Sheila runs to stay fit.
- That restaurant is the place to go.
In the first example, the split infinitive functions as a noun and, more specifically, a direct object. The second infinitive is used as an adverb, while the third infinitive functions as an adjective. As you can see in the examples, both words of the infinitive are placed directly next to each other. Since the two words of the infinitive function are one part of speech, separating them is grammatically incorrect.
The Split Infinitive
As you can probably deduct from the name, a split infinitive is an infinitive in which the “to” and the verb is separated by one or more words, typically adverbs. Since adverbs are words that describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, they frequently describe verbals, such as infinitives.
According to traditional grammar rules, it’s grammatically incorrect to split an infinitive since the two words form a unit, namely a part of speech, whether this is a noun, adjective, or adverb. However, split infinitives have formed part of conversational English for many centuries. One of the most famous examples of a split infinitive in English is the opening sequence of the TV series Star Trek, which contains the phrase “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” In this example, the adverb “boldly” splits the infinitive “to go.” Although this split is an error according to traditional grammarians, boldly provides a captivating description of how the Star Trek team tackles its space adventures.
Here are some more examples of split infinitives:
- I decided to really do my best this time.
- If you want to further develop your muscles, you should do these exercises.
- You should remember to never split infinitives.
Multiple words can also separate infinitives. Here are a few examples:
- In 10 years, the number of elephants in the park is expected to more than double.
- We will fight tirelessly to completely and utterly eliminate racism.
- Everyone, I need to once again emphasize the importance of today’s meeting.
Types of Split Infinitives
The most common type of split infinitive is one in which a single adverb separates the “to” and the verb. As mentioned above, a second form of the split infinitive is the compound infinitive, which involves two or more words. These are typically a pair of adverbs, such as “almost never,” or adverbial phrases, such as “completely and utterly.” Here are two other types of split infinitives:
- The pronoun “all”: Split infinitives can contain the pronoun “all,” such as in “It was common for people to all believe in the same god.” Sometimes, all is proceeded by an adverb: “Everyone, I need you to all really pull your weight this afternoon.”
- A conjunction: Sometimes, infinitives can be joined by a conjunction. An example of such a construction is this line from The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot: “ . . . she is determined to be independent, and not live with aunt Pullet.”
While the latter example contains a split infinitive, i.e., “to not live,” after the conjunction “and,” this construction is somehow not objected to by grammarians.
Avoiding Split Infinitives
If you recall anything about split infinitives from your school days, it’s probably that you should avoid them like the plague. The idea that split infinitives are grammatically incorrect gained traction in the 19th century when Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury at the time, declared that it is best to avoid splitting infinitives in his book of 1864, titled The Queen’s English. While the split infinitive was used in both spoken and written 19th-century British and American English, even by respected authors such as Daniel Defoe and Thomas Cromwell, Alford’s view on split infinitives somehow became widely accepted and made its way into English school books.
The various rules and guidelines on how to avoid split infinitives include the following:
- The easiest way to avoid a split infinitive is to remove the word that’s splitting the infinitive. For example, “We expect our crops to entirely fail this year” becomes “We expect our crops to fail this year.”
- A common way to fix a split infinitive is to move the adverb to another position in the sentence. For instance, “She began to quietly count the remaining money” becomes “She quietly began to count the remaining money.”
- You can also change the verb if trying to undo a split infinitive. For instance, “She tried to hurriedly pick up the pieces” becomes “she hurriedly picked up the pieces.” In such an instance, the infinitive is entirely removed from the sentence.
Is It Acceptable To Use Split Infinitives?
Although you may want to avoid them in formal writing, nobody raises an eyebrow regarding split infinitives. The words that split infinitives can make for expressive language and subtle changes in meaning. In some cases, correcting a split infinitive can change a sentence’s meaning. For instance, changing the split infinitive from “He decided to gradually lose weight” to “He decided gradually to lose weight” changes the meaning. In the first sentence, the man wants to lose weight at a gradual pace, while the second sentence implies that he took some time before he made the decision.
Most style guides and usage guides of today do not object to the usage of split infinitives. And suppose one looks more carefully at the history of the split infinitive. In that case, it becomes abundantly clear that many experts and authors never supported the idea that using these grammatical constructions was problematic. The golden rule to follow, it seems, is to write in a way that best expresses what it is you mean to say. Unless a split infinitive makes for an unwieldy sentence or somehow clouds the meaning, there is no reason to avoid it.
If you still need help, our guide to grammar and syntax explains more.
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