Is it ok to split infinitives?

This week we talk about split infinitives.  Usually, an infinitive begins with the word “to” followed by a verb, e.g., “to sleep,” “to dream,” “to run,” “to go.”  An infinitive can be used as a noun (“To be or not to be: that is the question.”), an adjective (“MHKC needs volunteers to cut wood.”), or an adverb (“The staff member returned to help carry wood.”).  In the first example the infinitive “to be” is the subject, in the second example the infinitive “to cut” modifies the noun “volunteers,” and in the third example the infinitive “to help” modifies the verb “returned.”  An infinitive can also function as a verb of course, although it cannot be the only verb in a sentence (e.g., “You have to think before you speak.”).

With that basic understanding of what an infinitive is, we come to this week’s topic:  when, if ever, is it ok to split an infinitive?  Let’s start with some examples:

  • To boldly go where no one has gone before.
  • Alice was told to always pay attention to the lesson.
  • She wants to simply live.

It seems to be generally accepted that nothing should come between the word “to” and the verb that follows; otherwise, a “split” infinitive results.  But is that really a hard-and-fast grammatical rule?

Well … no.  According to most grammarians, splitting infinitives is not improper.  For example, Strunk & White (“Elements of Style,” 4th ed. 2000, page 78) opine:

Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does.  “I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.”  The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear, the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible.  Put the other way, the sentence becomes stiff, needlessly formal.

And the Scribe’s favorite grammarian, Bryan Garner (“Modern American Usage,” 2nd ed. 2003, pages 742-744), agrees that many infinitives—including “to boldly go”—need to be split to avoid an awkward-sounding sentence.  So, dear readers, there is no hard-and-fast rule against splitting infinitives.

Nevertheless, if it is easy to move the infinitive-splitting word to the beginning or end of the phrase, then you may be better off keeping the infinitive intact on the off chance that your reader thinks that there is a rule against splitting infinitives.  For example, if you’re trying to convey that the object of the sentence wants to simplify her life, then “She wants to simply live” can be changed to “She wants to live simply.”  On the other hand, “To boldly go where no one has gone before” sounds awkward when changed to either “Boldly to go where …” or “To go boldly where …,” and is therefore best left with a split infinitive.

That is all for now …

1 Comment

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One response to “Is it ok to split infinitives?

  1. Hannah Benoit

    Love this. I have never held with the prohibition on infinitive splitting. I think I read somewhere that the rule was invented by a 19th century schoolmarm. But maybe that was made up by someone with a bias against schoolmarms. One note: I don’t think the following two sentences mean the same thing at all: “She wants to simply live.” “She wants to live simply.” The first, to me, implies that she wants to survive, maybe just get on with her life (She wants simply to live, and nothing more). The second means she wants to emulate Thoreau. All best, Hannah

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