No other grammatical issue has so divided the nation (Robert Burchfield)
When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split (Raymond Chandler)
So there’s a rule in English, except it’s not a rule, but some people think it is, and others who know it’s not a rule obey it in case it bothers the people who think it is, even though it can cloud or change the meaning of their prose. Ah, split infinitives: what an unholy mess.
A split infinitive is where an element, normally an adverb or adverbial phrase, is placed between to and the plain form of a verb – to boldly go is a well-known example. The construction is six or seven hundred years old; there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it, and there never has been. Usually it’s not even a stylistic lapse.
Before we continue, I should point out that split infinitive is a misnomer, since English doesn’t really have them. But it’s a convenient and familiar term, so I’ll use it.
The split infinitive’s notoriety dates to the 19th century. Grammarians noticed a rise in its occurrence and began to censure it – maybe under the influence of classical languages. The American Heritage Dictionary says “the only rationale for condemning the construction is based on a false analogy with Latin”, though Richard Bailey contends this is “part of the folklore of linguistics”.
Either way, today the “rule” is a prominent superstition, a fossilised bogeyman of writing style. It squats atop the league of misbegotten grammar myths wherein lurk the taboos against starting sentences with conjunctions and ending them with prepositions. John McIntyre says the case against split infinitives has been
shot down, demolished, exploded and buried at a crossroads with a stake through its heart. It should be as dead as Marley, but it keeps coming back.
Item: The UK Telegraph published a post last month condemning someone’s “ignorance” for “viciously” (unobjectionably) splitting an infinitive. The same paper soon offered a more enlightened analysis from Tom Chivers, about which more below, but he shouldn’t have had to correct such anachronistic peeving in the first place.
This is what’s meant by the term zombie rule: what should have been dead and put to eternal rest has proved impossible to kill. It shuffles obnoxiously on in the popular imagination, independent of reason and evidence. Its survival, however tenuous, testifies to the power of classroom folklore over common sense and established usage.
Grammatical misinformation can be countered, but it leaves a residue. It feeds what the Language Log linguists call “nervous cluelessness” about language, and it leads to avoidance of a legitimate usage because a subset of vocal pedants have fomented a petty prejudice against it. G. H. Vallins, in Good English (1951), wrote:
the anti-split-infinitive campaign has been so successful that most writers nowadays (in spite of Fowler) will cheerfully commit the sin of ambiguity rather than risk the self-appointed grammarian’s frown.
A half-century later, Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage finds that although commentators recognise there’s nothing ungrammatical about split infinitives, they’re “loath to abandon a subject that is so dear to the public at large”. John Ayto at the OED calls it
an entirely factitious solecism which has been so consistently and energetically condemned by self-appointed guardians of English grammar that generations of speakers and especially writers have been terrorized into avoiding it.
And so even modern authorities regularly advise against using split infinitives, lest you upset people who get upset about split infinitives. Which don’t exist in English. Things have gotten so silly that people end up apologising on TV for splitting infinitives when they didn’t at all.
In other words, crazies win.
Source: Ozy and Millie by Dana Claire Simpson
Writers shouldn’t feel entitled to casually split every “infinitive” they see: style and sense don’t line up that neatly. A phrase may sound better split or unsplit, or there may be little difference. Do what comes naturally and makes sense.
Sometimes an infinitive should be split, or the phrase becomes ambiguous or misleading, because the adverb if displaced could appear to modify something else; for example, “they were told periodically to check each tank of water for contaminants”. More examples below will highlight this problem.
A few reference books use a line like: “We expect to more than double our profits”. This infinitive can’t easily be unsplit without subtly altering the sense, stress, or rhythm. In The Fight for English, David Crystal says the split form is popular “because it is rhythmically more natural to say”. Hence the euphony of Star Trek’s “to boldly go”: te-tum-te-tum.
Ernest Gowers includes in The Complete Plain Words a remarkable example of distant splitting, reproduced here at glorious length:
The tenant hereby agrees:
(i) to pay the said rent;
(ii) to properly clean all the windows;
(iii) to at all times properly empty all closets;
(iv) to immediately any litter or disorder shall have been made by him or for his purpose on the staircase or landings or any other part of the said building or garden remove the same.
Bruce Fraser, in his revised edition of the book, comments:
Gowers suggested that even the most vigorous rebel against the taboo could hardly condone such a resolute crescendo of splitting . . . . [He] was doubtless right. But surely this is a museum piece. To improve it (which is easy) would be to spoil it. Like some appallingly bad poem it acquires a weird beauty of its own, and every successive reading increases our awe for its creator.
At Lingua Franca recently, Lucy Ferriss followed up on Tom Chivers’s Telegraph post in which he sensibly defended split infinitives. Addressing his humorous examples (“I want to tell you to joyfully split your infinitives; to happily shatter them”), Ferriss finds she prefers them with postpositioned adverbs (“to split your infinitives joyfully”) and wonders if the rule is therefore useful.
I’ll recycle my comment here. The rule isn’t useful as a rule, but knowing about it is useful because it makes us aware of potential problems. The Telegraph examples may indeed read better with the adverbs shifted right, so they don’t illustrate the trouble with automatic adherence to the rule. (Note that being in line with the rule doesn’t imply obedience to it; it may just coincide with good style.)
As an example of how the rule can lead one astray, consider this phrase from Steven Mithen’s book The Prehistory of the Mind: (1) “I am going hesitantly to adopt the notion of recapitulation…”. Going hesitantly? No. Going to hesitantly adopt. The potential for a miscue, however brief, is significant here, and it seems to result from obedience to a rule that was never justified in the first place.
This is no anomaly. Below is a selection of unsplit infinitives I’ve come across, mostly in books. Some are ambiguous; others just sound a bit awkward, fussy, or unnatural to my ear. I don’t know whether it was the author or an editor (or translator, where applicable) who made the call in each case, but taken together they point to the prevalence of what Bill Walsh calls the un-splitting fetish.
(2) And in doing so I want firmly to embed the evolution of the mind into that of the brain, and indeed the body in general. (Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind)
(3) Should you wish pleasantly to enliven your flat, then choose a pair of small birds (Konrad Lorenz, King Solomon’s Ring, trans. by Marjorie Kerr Wilson)
(4) the female . . ., herself upset by the change, began anxiously to gather the young ones around her. (Konrad Lorenz, King Solomon’s Ring, trans. by Marjorie Kerr Wilson)
(5) His writings continued strongly to influence the Covenanting stock of the Border country (K. M. Elisabeth Murray, Caught in the Web of Words)
(6) Berkeley, Wordsworth, Shelley are representative of the intuitive refusal seriously to accept the abstract materialism of science. (A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World)
(7) Some of the English letters had ceased adequately to represent a changing pronunciation in Old English… (C. L. Wrenn, The English Language)
(8) the word gender in grammar is well known, but difficult accurately to define or explain (C. L. Wrenn, The English Language)
(9) Grammar is only the attempt exactly to describe the facts of a given language (C. L. Wrenn, The English Language)
(10) My first three books . . . mark the beginning of this development, for it was only as I was writing them that I began systematically to explore childhood (Alice Miller, The Drama of Being a Child)
(11) It is possible, successfully to resist innovation, is it? (Edwin Newman, in an interview with Marshall McLuhan on ‘Speaking Freely’)
(12) If no appropriate inputs are presented during this period in their lives, songbirds lose the ability fully to supplement what was not acquired, and their later behaviour is significantly affected. (Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species)
(13) Adequately to judge this girl, we must make a many-valued appraisal (Stuart Chase, The Tyranny of Words)
(14) If you want roughly to estimate anyone’s mental calibre, you cannot do it better than by observing the ratio of generalities to personalities in his talk (Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology, quoted in What is History? by E. H. Carr)
(15) [Orangutans] have been known quietly to conceal metal in their mouths, and once their keepers have gone for the day, to use it to open their cage doors. (Christine Kenneally, The First Word)
(16) I mean that euphoric inability fully to believe one’s simple luck (John Banville, The Sea)
(17) He was never ashamed publicly to bear witness (Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda)
Want firmly, began anxiously, ceased adequately, began systematically, lose the ability fully, want roughly, was never ashamed publicly: these phrases, whose apparent meanings are at odds with the intended meanings, are likely to distract at least some readers.
Joseph M. Williams, in Style, wrote that the split infinitive is now so common among the best writers that “when we make an effort to avoid splitting it, we invite notice”. This counterproductive antipathy to an innocuous bit of syntax can also generate striking irony, as in the following passage from the Queen’s English Society:
(18) These 40 years of experience of translating several languages into English – in other words, working out how elegantly to present in English a text originally written (often badly) in another language – and as many years having his errors corrected by competent revisers and editors, have left him with a fine feeling for his mother tongue and a strong belief that English can and should be used not merely correctly but elegantly also.
How elegantly? Try how awkwardly and how ambiguously. Fowler said the aversion “springs not from instinctive good taste, but from tame acceptance of the misinterpreted opinion of others”. People distort their language to detour unnecessarily around the hint of a memory of the ghost of a mistake.
I imagine the same superstitious impulse inspired the editor who allegedly tweaked George Bernard Shaw’s split infinitives, leading the writer to quip: “I don’t care if he is made to go quickly, or to quickly go – but go he must!” (Shaw wrote to newspapers in support of freedom of choice in the matter.)
I’ll wrap up with two memorable passages. The first, from H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), is a famous pronouncement in writing and editing circles:
The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish. Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes.
The full entry (from Ernest Gowers’s revised edition of Fowler) is online here. The second passage, from James Thurber, is a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek follow-up:
Mr Fowler’s point is, of course, that there are good split infinitives and bad ones. For instance, he contends that it is better to say “Our object is to further cement trade relations,” thus splitting “to cement,” than to say “Our object is further to cement trade relations,” because the use of “further” before “to cement” might lead the reader to think it had the weight of “moreover” rather than of “increasingly.” My own way out of all this confusion would be simply to say “Our object is to let trade relations ride,” that is, give them up, let them go. Some people would regard the abandonment of trade relations, merely for the purpose of avoiding grammatical confusion, as a weak-kneed and unpatriotic action. That, it seems to me, is a matter for each person to decide for himself. A man who, like myself, has no knowledge at all of trade relations, cannot be expected to take the same interest in cementing them as, say, the statesman or the politician. This is no reflection on trade relations.
I’ve archived a Twitter conversation about this: Should we split infinitives at work?
If you’re interested in the history of “infinitive”-splitting and the criticism thereof, read Tom Freeman’s helpful post.