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October 20, 2008

To Split or Not to Split Infinitives?

Most of us were taught (if we were taught grammar at all) never to split infinitives, but writers have been splitting them anyway--even long before the creators of the Star Trek series provided us with the often-quoted phrase "to boldly go where no man has gone before." Those of us who were taught that the split infinitive is anathema might well benefit from examining the origins of this rule and considering cases where we might, with good reason, be excused for ignoring it.

What is an infinitive?

Dictionary definitions of the word infinitive will make a reader's head spin, so suffice it to say here that the infinitive is the form of the verb that has the to in front of it: to walk, to run, to play. (Infinitives do not function in sentences as verbs but rather as adverbs, adjectives, or nouns--but this issue is a topic for another discussion altogether.) To split an infinitive is to put a word or words between the infinitive marker--the word to--and the root verb that follows it, as in "to boldly go." Here, the infinitive to go is being split by the adverb boldly.

What are the origins of the never-split-an-infinitive rule?

Although we do not know for certain how this rule came about, the commonly held theory is that it evolved from an effort to make English grammar function in the same way that Latin grammar does: in this classical language, an infinitive is a single word and therefore cannot be split. In his Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993), Kenneth Wilson notes, too, that the rule may have grown out of discussions about the "proper" placement of adverbs in a sentence. Regardless of its origins, however, this "rule" has been the source of much dissension between those who value adherence to traditionally accepted principles at all costs (often called "prescriptivists") and those who value, above all else, clarity and readability.

When should we avoid splitting an infinitive?

Because an infinitive expresses a single idea, a unit of thought, we try to keep its two parts--the marker to and the root verb that follows it--together if we can. After all, our job as writers is to make our reader's job as easy as possible, and keeping logical units of thought intact generally promotes that effort. Most writers would agree that the following sentences containing split infinitives are awkward--or at least not as readable and clear as the "improved" sentences that follow (the infinitives are underlined):

  • She agreed to quickly and quietly leave the room.
  • She agreed to leave the room quickly and quietly.

  • We should try to whenever possible avoid splitting infinitives.
  • We should try to avoid splitting infinitives whenever possible.

In other cases, however, moving a modifier to a position outside of an infinitive results in a sentence that is either less clear or more awkward than it was when the infinitive was split. Consider, for example, these sentences (both the infinitives and the adverbs are underlined):

  • The multiple-choice items on the test were determined to adequately assess content-area knowledge.
  • The multiple-choice items on the test were determined to assess adequately content-area knowledge.
  • The multiple-choice items on the test were determined adequately to assess content-area knowledge. [We cannot tell if adequately modifies determined here or assess.]
  • The multiple-choice items on the test were determined to assess content-area knowledge adequately. [This option is acceptable, although the adverb is not as close to the infinitive as we might prefer.]

  • Even in the twenty-first century, human beings are unable to fully comprehend the vastness and complexity of the universe.
  • Even in the twenty-first century, human beings are unable fully to comprehend the vastness and complexity of the universe. [This construction is just plain awkward.]
  • Even in the twenty-first century, human beings are unable to comprehend the vastness and complexity of the universe fully. [Here the modifier fully is very far removed from the word it modifies, comprehend.]

So what do we do?

As Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" ("Self-Reliance," 1841), with the key word here being foolish. Avoiding split infinitives is not foolish when we are writing a high-stakes document-say, for example, a letter of application for a job-because the reader of that document may well be someone who immediately dismisses all infinitive splitters as careless rubes unworthy of being hired. (We all know such rigid people.)

But in many cases, we do not have to contort a sentence just to avoid splitting an infinitive with an adverb. One editor at the highly respected University of Chicago Press, publisher of The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, has summed up the matter well: "euphony or emphasis or clarity or all three can be improved by splitting the infinitive in certain situations" (CMS FAQ). And even the most influential style guides do acknowledge the fact that avoiding split infinitives at all costs can sometimes lead to awkward constructions.

Those of us here at Get It Write must confess, though, that we are still loath to split an infinitive. Given the two examples above, where the versions containing split infinitives seem clearer than the ones that avoid the split, we purists would recast the sentences to avoid the infinitives entirely:

  • The Department of Education determined that the multiple-choice items on the test adequately assess content-area knowledge.

  • Even in the twenty-first century, human beings cannot fully comprehend the vastness and complexity of the universe.

Alas, some linguistic traditions die hard!

2008 Get It Write

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