How awkwardly to avoid split infinitives

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”. (See MWDEU‘s detailed history at Google Books.) 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.)

Please ignore the sexism – it’s from an old video – and enjoy this boldly split infinitive.

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.

For more analysis of this invented, indestructible problem, see relevant posts in the Language Log archives, many of which examine the consequences of superstitious split-infinitive avoidance.

Updates:

I’ve storified 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.

I’ve written two more posts on the topic, both (mercifully) shorter than this one: ‘To infinitely split with sense‘, and ‘To offensively split infinitives‘.

43 Responses to How awkwardly to avoid split infinitives

  1. Shaun Downey says:

    To Blody Go sounds far better than to go boldly…. and it allowed Douglas Adams to write one of the greatest lines in H2G2:

    …In those days men were real men, women were real women, small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before …

  2. Harry Lake (age 66, freelance translator since 1972) says:

    I have saved the link to this blog so that I can send it to anyone who complains when I dare to actually split an infinitive in one of my translations. (All right, that’s not a particularly brilliant example, but what the hell…). Seriously: I regard this as the definitive debunking of the split infinitive myth. I am grateful to you. (Of course, anyone reading this would be entirely justified in wondering who I think I am, but then that’s the trouble with – and the joy of – blogs, isn’t it?)

  3. Harry Lake (age 66, freelance translator since 1972) says:

    PS Please do not ask Shaun Downey to correct his typo!

  4. Stan says:

    Shaun: Ah, happy memories. And yes: to boldly go sounds much better; the alternatives just don’t sound, well, bold enough.

    Harry: Thanks very much, though I’m sure there are more thorough and less long-winded debunkings out there. Your “dare to actually split” is a fine example because it’s simple and natural. To think that some would insist on “dare actually to split”! (I wouldn’t correct someone’s typo in a comment unless they asked me too; Shaun’s Blody is a happy accident as far as I’m concerned.)

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    Excellent post. The next time I meet an anti-infinitive splitter, I’m going to boldly split every infinitive in sight, and watch him squirm. It’s better than water-boarding.

  6. Jonathon says:

    “Adequately to judge this girl” doesn’t even sound like real English anymore; it sounds like Yoda.

    Great post, Stan. Maybe if we keep shooting it with enough shotgun blasts, this zombie rule will finally die.

  7. Marc Leavitt says:

    Jonathon:
    Nice thought, but don’t count on it.

  8. Stan says:

    Marc: Thank you. I’ve done similar things out of mischief, and with the vague hope that repeated exposure might reduce the instinctive aversion.

    Jonathon: It does sound a bit like Yoda! I think the best we can hope for is containment: there’ll always be people who never saw a rule they didn’t immediately add to their pseudo-grammatical arsenal.

  9. Eugene says:

    From what I’ve seen of zombie movies, you absolutely must keep shooting the zombies if only to buy enough time to retreat to a safe place.
    I agree that this is an enjoyable post – a nice zombie shooting expedition – though I think the MWDEU entry on the topic should have been enough to stop the zombies.
    I’d like to hazard a few generalization. There are three choices for where to put the adverbial. #1 – before to – is usually ridiculous, as the examples given show. #2 – between to and the bare infinitive – is almost always OK unless the adverbial is relatively long. #3 – after the infinitive – is almost always OK.
    The choice between #2 and #3 is stylistic, but it’s not always just about which one “sounds” better. I think it’s about the information structure of the construction. The principle of end weight tends to place long adverbials after the infinitive. When the adverbial is short, the choice must be about which one deserves the prominence that final position confers.
    So, by that way of thinking, ‘to boldly go’ highlights the going and includes information about the manner. And ‘to go boldly’ presents the going as more like given information and highlights the manner, the boldness of it.

  10. Stan says:

    Eugene: Yes, it’s a running battle with those zombies. At least we’re not being besieged by the rule and running out of ammo. It would help if MWDEU were in more homes and places of work and education, but unfortunately it will never topple the likes of Stunk & White for popularity.

    I agree, in general, with your generalisations. I wouldn’t go so far as to call position #1 ridiculous, though it is often a bit odd and troublesome. Long adverbials are sometimes put in #2 for effect, as in “Tell Sayre to damn well and soon return those proofs” (from a letter by Thurber). I didn’t say it was just about which sounds better. In the post, I wrote: “Do what comes naturally and makes sense.” By “makes sense” you can read “conveys the information well”. I might have gone into more detail on this, but the post is long enough.

  11. […] a posting by Stan Carey yesterday (“How awkwardly to avoid split infinitives”), this Ozy and Millie […]

  12. WordNerdGuy says:

    Love this piece. So brazen! I know that I am constantly frightened of upending the boat with my editor so I tend to shy away from the “to split or to (not) split” battle. Next time, I’ll point her in your direction.

  13. wisewebwoman says:

    Three cheers you!

    Usage and sense determines my writing. Sometimes ‘unsplitting’ makes my writing sound awkward and elitist.

    The ear always has it for me.

    XO
    WWW

  14. Stan says:

    WordNerdGuy: Thank you. It boils down to style, not grammar, so unless house style forbids it there should always be room to manoeuvre.

    WWW: Usage and sense make excellent guides. It’s strange how a superstition can take hold and influence generations of writers.

  15. Alan says:

    I am going to cheerfully quote you at every opportunity.

  16. Eugene says:

    I guess “ridiculous” was too strong a term for adverbials placed before the infinitive (position #1), After another look, I see that 10 of your 15 examples are merely ambiguous rather than misleading. Still, the reader’s first inclination is to assume that the adverbial modifies the main verb it is placed with rather than the subordinate infinitive. Then we sort out the intended meaning through semantics. Putting the adverbial after ‘to’ would be much clearer in all of those examples.

    The best/worst example is ‘want roughly to estimate’ (#14). Clearly the wanting is not rough but the estimate would be.

    On the other hand, when the main verb has an aspectual meaning – begin, continue, cease – the ambiguity is less pronounced – I guess because the two events are treated as one – and it doesn’t much matter where the modification goes.

    Are there examples where position #1 is clearly better?

  17. […] Sentence First: Do you break out into a cold sweat when it comes to splitting infinitives? Don’t. Many of […]

  18. Stan says:

    Alan: Glad to hear it.

    Eugene: ‘Are there examples where position #1 is clearly better?’ That’s a good question.

  19. John Cowan says:

    Oddly, the most effective counter-tactic to someone who quotes a zombie rule at you seems to be to respond with a counterblast: “No, that is not the rule. The rule is …”, and then you give a rule. Doesn’t matter if it’s exactly right; the kind of people who are impressed by rules they read in books tend to be even more impressed by authority figures who can administer in-person verbal drubbings.

    This is very hard for reasonable, sensible, scientific-minded people such as ourselves to swallow, or once swallowed to actually put into practice. But if remembering this lets you split a useful infinitive someday, it’s worth it.

  20. […] you’re dying to know more, a recent post on the charming blog Sentence First, An Irishman’s Blog on the English Language lays out the drama, the history, the hot mess that is the debate over split […]

  21. Stan says:

    John: That’s a good suggestion. Rather than say “(The rule is) there is no rule”, as I might be inclined, I’ll consider saying something like “The rule is that you can split infinitives” and go from there. The sleight of rhetoric from No Rule to Bigger Rule might do the trick, at least in some cases.

  22. factualfantasy says:

    Reblogged this on Complexity Reduction and commented:
    English is a funny language, though.

  23. John Cowan says:

    Truly Donovan’s page “The Ignorables” (from her Wordworks section) contains fine examples of how to handle people who have been infected with bogus rules.

  24. Stan says:

    Thank you, John; I wasn’t aware of Ms Donovan’s website. She offers very sensible advice.

  25. […] month I wrote about the unhappy consequences of avoiding split infinitives – a silly superstition that leads writers and editors who believe in it to sometimes make a mush […]

  26. Maybe all this pressure is finally having an effect. Today I heard a BBC newsreader say that someone was ‘refusing to publicly engage in’ something or other. Time was when the BBC would do anything to avoid splitting an infinitive (in the knowledge that its switchboard would be jammed by pedants) – and we’d have had the deeply ambiguous ‘refusing publicly to engage in…’. I’m sure we shall overcome one day.

  27. Stan says:

    That is an encouraging sign, Michael. I expect the BBC receives complaints about split infinitives anyway, but hopefully only a few. Maybe its style authorities wised up and decided that the proscription was, on balance, more harmful than helpful.

  28. […] morphology, you use them instinctively every day. The sham rules that get all the attention, like “Don’t split infinitives”, are not grammar rules but fossilized stylistic preferences. The popular appeal of grammar suffers […]

  29. […] a sharply worded assessment of the baleful effects of ill-informed advice, from “How awkwardly to avoid split infinitives” on Stan Carey’s blog: Grammatical misinformation can be countered, but it leaves a residue. It feeds what the Language […]

  30. I once wrote the headline (ok, only school newsletter): Togo Boldly – good luck to U15s on their Africa tour!

  31. Stan says:

    Good one, Edward!

  32. I am determined to become a split infinitive master, which will effectively enhance the split nature of my personality. OCD meets rebel. To infinitive and beyond!!! :-)

  33. Stan says:

    To infinitive and beyond!

    Now you’re buzzing, Richard! Thanks for stopping by.

  34. […] author (or his editor) superstitiously avoids split infinitives (“able rapidly to express”, etc.), which I found distracting; some […]

  35. […] certain rules facilitate these qualities, others are misguided myths that undermine them (e.g. “Don’t split infinitives”). Theodore M. Bernstein called such myths “Miss Thistlebottom’s hobgoblins”. Joseph M. […]

  36. […] * Not I want briefly to mention, which would mean something quite different, split infinitive watchers. […]

  37. […] not let them be annoyed? The style guide offers sound advice aplenty, but on split infinitives it sacrifices healthy brains to a zombie rule. The reason I bring it up again, having already shown why the rule is bogus and counterproductive, […]

  38. […] The Queen’s English, have argued against splitting infinitives, it is not a rule. In fact, sometimes avoiding a split infinitive is downright awkward. So grammar aficionados need not tear out their hair over the Enterprise’s mission “to boldly go […]

  39. […] which i was anxious to get up and photograph from the top of.  francis teaches english in barcelona.  that last sentence was just to annoy him. […]

  40. […] The Queen’s English, have argued against splitting infinitives, it is not a rule. In fact, sometimes avoiding a split infinitive is downright awkward. So grammar aficionados need not tear out their hair over the Enterprise’s mission “to […]

  41. […] sometimes avoiding a split infinitive is downright awkward. So grammar aficionados […]

  42. Oliver Langan says:

    My education was poor,and I still have no hope of identifying verbs and adverbs etc.But I do enjoy these comments on the oddities of the English language.I am hoping to learn more from sites like this than I ever did at school.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for your visit and comment, Oliver. Grammarians and linguists still disagree over where exactly to draw the lines between one class of words and another. But this site has a helpful introduction, if you decide to delve into it a little.

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