Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split...—Raymond Chandler, American novelist, in a letter to his publisher regarding a proofreader who had changed all of his split infinitives.

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Split Your Infinitives? Yes You Can!

An Underwood portable typewriter.

Vintage advertisement for Underwood portable typewriters. Underwood typewriters were the choice of writers and editors everywhere; both F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulker were known to use Underwoods, and Jack Kerouac composed the manuscript for On the Road using an Underwood portable. The original Underwood typewriter was invented by Franz Xaver Wagner, who sold his company to John Thomas Underwood in the late nineteenth century. By 1939, the Underwood Typewriter Company had manufactured five million machines.

A split infinitive is a grammatical construction in the English language where a word or phrase, usually an adverb or adverbial phrase, occurs between the marker “to” and the bare infinitive (uninflected) form of the verb. The construction is particularly notable because of some controversy as to whether it is grammatically correct.

One famous example is from the opening credits of the television series Star Trek, which proclaims the crew is “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Here, the presence of the adverb “boldly” between the parts of the infinitive “to” and “go” creates a split infinitive. The construction can often be avoided by placing the intervening words after the verb or before the “to” marker. For example “to go boldly where no man has gone before” or “boldly to go where no man has gone before.” However, these two rephrasings do not have identical meanings—the former attaches the boldness to the manner of going, while the latter attaches the boldness to the complete act of going “where no man has gone before.”

Descriptively speaking, split infinitives are common in most varieties of English. However, their status as part of the standard language is controversial. In the 19th century, some grammatical authorities sought to introduce a prescriptive rule that split infinitives should not be used in English. Over the last 100 years, however, most language experts agree that this rule was misguided, and indeed that the split infinitive construction can sometimes help to convey one’s intended meaning more accurately. Captain Kirk had it right all along.

Early History

It is likely that the split infinitive originally entered the English language from the French; at any rate, it first appears after the Norman Conquest when English was borrowing very widely from French. Germanic languages (including Old English) do not permit an adverb to fall between an infinitive and its preposition. Compare German:

Ich beschließe, etwas nicht zu tun.

I decide not to do something. (Literally, I decide something not to do.)

Romance languages, on the other hand, do separate infinitives from their prepositions, though grammarians of those languages do not normally use the term “split infinitive” to describe the phenomenon, since the preposition is not considered a part of the uninflected infinitive form. Compare French:

Je décide de ne pas faire quelque chose.

I decide to not do something.

English writers have been splitting infinitives at least since Layamon in 1250. However, by the 16th century the construction was still rare in the work of some of the most notable authors of the English language. In all of William Shakespeare’s work it can only be found once. Edmund Spenser, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and the King James Version of the Bible do not have any. Notable authors who have used them at least once include John Donne, Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, Abraham Lincoln, George Eliot, Henry James, and Willa Cather.

Claims That Split Infinitives Are Wrong

Split infinitives became more common in the 19th century, and general awareness seems to have started when Henry Alford condemned them in Plea for the Queen’s English, published in 1866. Alford’s condemnation was on the basis of common usage. By the end of the 19th century, the prohibition was firmly established in the press and popular belief. The first known use of the term “split infinitive” was in 1897.

The Full Infinitive as a Prerequisite

In English grammar the bare infinitive “do” is distinguished from the full infinitive “to do,” and “to do” is often used as the citation form. This is probably because the English infinitive lacks any distinctive inflection, in contrast to French and German, where the bare infinitive by itself is recognizable as such. This means that in English, the word “to” is conceptualized as part of the infinitive, whereas in French and German, “à/de” and “zu” are not. The difference is subjective, as the constructions are parallel, but the perspective on this that begat the admonition not to split infinitives was a prerequisite for the idea that there is such a thing as a full infinitive that can be split.

The Argument from Classical Languages

It is speculated that the rule against split infinitives developed around the beginning of the English Renaissance, as English grammarians, trained to look to Ancient Greek and Latin as ideal languages, took a closer look at their own mother tongue. In Greek and Latin, it is impossible to split infinitives because these languages never use their infinitives together with a preposition. At a time when European intellectuals saw Classical culture and language as more perfect than their own, this represented a powerful precedent. Some language historians see this as the deciding factor. For example, the American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996) states: “The only rationale for condemning the construction is based on a false analogy with Latin.”

The Argument from Germanic Languages

Then there are those who dislike the split infinitive on the grounds that it is not a natural construction in a Germanic language. This is a weak argument today, as standard English has very many constructions which are novelties within the Germanic language family. However, in fairness to the renaissance grammarians, it must be said that the further we go back in English language history, the more English is typically Germanic, and it is possible that in the 14th century the split infinitive was still uncommon enough to sound foreign.

The Descriptivist Objection

Most English speakers use split infinitives. Some do not, and not because they follow a prescriptivist rule, but simply because it was not part of the language that they learned as children. One may, of course, speculate that they are influenced by prescriptivist thinking in the previous generation. Nonetheless, a complete picture of the debate must allow that there are those who are uncomfortable with the construction because their descriptivist observation of their own usage leads them to feel that it does not belong.

Some of those who avoid split infinitives differentiate according to type and register. Clearly, “I decided to not go” is not nearly as awkward as “I decided to by bus on Wednesday go.” That is, it makes a big difference what kinds of adverbials are inserted, and the boundaries of normality are subjective. Again, split infinitives are far more common in speech than in academic writing, and a sense of what makes proper formal style is likewise subjective. Thus an attempt to avoid the construction need not be based entirely on prescriptivist rules; it can draw simultaneously on a descriptivist observation that certain split infinitives are not usual in certain situations.

Counterarguments

Just as the prohibition against the split infinitive was becoming part of popular culture, there was a reaction against it among leading writers and grammarians. For example, in the 1907 edition of The King’s English, the Fowler brothers 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.”

The reaction against this “superstition” was based on grammatical, historical, and stylistic considerations. Grammatically, the prohibition of split infinitives was thought to be a nonsensical application of Latin grammar to a Germanic language. There are good grounds for arguing that “to” is not part of the infinitive in English. Neither its German cognate “zu” nor its Dutch cognate “te” is considered part of the infinitive in their respective languages, although many sentences use them the same way as English uses “to” in constructions. And while German and Dutch never allow an adverbial to fall between the preposition and the infinitive, Swedish does.

There was frequent skirmishing between the splitters and anti-splitters up until the 1960s. George Bernard Shaw wrote letters to newspapers supporting writers who used the split infinitive, and Raymond Chandler complained to his publisher about a proofreader who changed Chandler’s split infinitives:

“Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.”

Current Views

Even as some grammarians were condemning the split infinitive, others were endorsing it. In the present day, all reference texts of grammar deem simple split infinitives unobjectionable.

H. W. Fowler later wrote, in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, that writers who avoid split infinitives are “bogy-haunted creatures.” Curme’s Grammar of the English Language (1931) says that not only is the split infinitive correct, but it “should be furthered rather than censured, for it makes for clearer expression.” The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) notes that the split infinitive “eliminates all possibility of ambiguity,” in contrast to the “potential for confusion” in an unsplit construction. The American Heritage Book of English Usage quoted above also opposes the condemnation.

Nevertheless, many teachers of English still admonish students against using split infinitives. Because the prohibition has become so widely known, the Columbia Guide recommends that writers “follow the conservative path [of avoiding split infinitives when they are not necessary], especially when you’re uncertain of your readers’ expectations and sensitivities in this matter.” When, in a given situation, the only alternatives to a split infinitive are either awkward and unnatural-sounding or change the intended meaning, it is often possible to reformulate the sentence (perhaps by rephrasing it without an infinitive) and thus avoid the issue altogether.

Problems Caused by Trying to Avoid the Split Infinitive

Stylistically, the careful placement of another word between “to” and the bare infinitive sometimes avoids ambiguity or ugliness. The old prohibition on split infinitives is particularly surprising when one observes that there are a number of expressions in English that are weakened considerably by avoiding the split infinitive.

R.L. Trask uses this example:

She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

Clearly, what is implied here is she took a decision to get rid of her teddy bears, and the disposal would happen over time. ‘Gradually’ splits the infinite “to get.” But if we were to move it, where would it go? Consider the following:

She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

This implies that the decision was gradual.

She decided to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected gradually.

This implies that the collecting process was gradual.

She decided to get gradually rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

This is just bad English.

She decided to get rid gradually of the teddy bears she had collected.

This is almost as awkward as its immediate predecessor.

Not only does the original example sound right to a native speaker, it is also the only semantically sound possibility.

In other instances, use of a split infinitive is for many people the most natural way to add certain kinds of emphasis in conversation:

Student A: “I’m going to do better next year.”

Student B: “I’m going to really do better next year.”

On a historical level, it is possible that years of attacks against split infinitives by prescriptive grammarians have cowed some people into needless reluctance to split other compound verb forms. For example, people will contort sentences to avoid placing an adverb in its usual position between the auxiliary verb and the participle, leading to constructions such as, “The argument originally had been used…” instead of “The argument had originally been used,” which is more natural for most speakers.

It is probably not possible to disentangle this argument from the modality of English grammar. Typically, in a phrase such as “I am going to,” the verbal construct “to be going to” acts as a modal verb, analogous to other standard modal verbs “will,” “could,” “can,” etc. In this sense, it becomes apparent that the preposition “to” does not belong to the infinitive verb, but rather to the modal verb. In this case, it becomes impossible to split an infinitive.

Giant Typewriter at the 1939 World’s Fair.

The fourteen-ton giant Underwood Master typewriter at the New York World’s Fair, 1939. From a vintage postcard.

Special Situations

Compound split infinitives (where more than one adverb is employed) and other multi-word insertions are still contentious; as recently as 1996 the usage panel of The American Heritage Book of English Usage were evenly divided for and against such sentences as “I expect him to completely and utterly fail.” More than three-quarters of the panel rejected “We are seeking a plan to gradually, systematically, and economically relieve the burden.” On the other hand, 87% of the panel deemed acceptable the multi-word adverb in “We expect our output to more than double in a year.”

Here the problem appears to be the breaking up of the verbal phrase “to be seeking a plan to relieve.” By placing part of the head verbal phrase so far away from the rest of it, the brain has to work harder to understand the sentence. The rule of thumb should always be to make it easier for the reader or listener to understand.

Splitting infinitives with negations, as in the phrase “I want to not see you any more,” is one of the trickiest areas of contention. Some people who are generally tolerant towards split infinitives draw the line at those split by negation, calling them awkward or ungrammatical. However, the relative inflexibility of negation makes it hard to reformulate such sentences. While “I want to happily run” can easily be altered to “I want to run happily,” “I want to see you not” is not modern English. The possibilities are moving up the “not” to immediately before the to-infinitive (“I want not to see you any more”), which sounds awkward to most people, or negating the verb rather than the desire (“I don’t want to see you anymore”), which, some might object, entirely alters the meaning of the sentence, or simply “I want to see you no more.”

There are rare examples of non-adverbial phrases participating in the split infinitive construction, as in Shakespeare’s split infinitive, a poetic inversion: “Thy pity may deserve to pitied be” (Sonnet 142). Modern examples are “It was their nature to all hurt one another” or “It was her destiny to one day assume the throne.” These have endured the same shifts of opinion and gradual acceptance as adverbs.

Our View of Split Infinitives at Compass Rose Horizons

For the most part, our editors view split infinitives as a matter of style, not grammar, and agree with Toni Boyle and K.D. Sullivan, authors of The Gremlins of Grammar, when they wrote: “That’s right. It’s perfectly fine to wantonly split the infinitive. If you want to coldheartedly separate the verb from its introductory word, you go right ahead. Whew! One less rule to needlessly worry about.”

Proofreading and Editing Specialists

E-mail editor@compassrose.com for all your proofreading or editing needs. We won't hassle you about using split infinitives in your manuscript!


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