Split infinitive

Automatic aversion to a split infinitive is a conditioned response. There is nothing inherently or even grammatically wrong with splitting an infinitive, but too many people were taught that it is “bad writing” and have never raised their heads above the grammar noise to consider whether this is true. (It isn’t.) Thus they have their automatic and deeply felt response, but it is baseless.

A split infinitive, or cleft infinitive, is defined in Wikipedia as the placement of a modifier (usually an adverb of some sort) between “to” and the infinitive form of the verb. The most famous split infinitive in Western culture is “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” where boldly is the offending modifier. (We’ll leave discussion of the sexist word “man” for a later discussion.)

Indulge yourself in a reading of the Wikipedia article and you’ll learn that a split infinitive’s “incorrectness” was determined by a 19th Century declaration. That’s hardly a sound tool for the evolution of a language. There’s lots of interesting discussion there, but I keep coming back to the fact that while nearly all other “rules” of grammar came into being after they were already norms in the language, the split infinitive was proactively declared as a rule.

In many cases, splitting the infinitive is putting the modifier in exactly the best place for it to do its work. Consider these sentences, which I paraphrase from the Wikipedia article.

  1. Eudora decided to gradually get rid of all of the writing guides she had acquired.
  2. Eudora decided gradually to get rid of all of the writing guides she had acquired.
  3. Eudora decided to get rid of all of the writing guides she had acquired gradually.
  4. Eudora decided to get gradually rid of all of the writing guides she had acquired.
  5. Eudora decided to get rid gradually of all of the writing guides she had acquired.

Number One clearly shows that her liberation process will be gradual. If this is your meaning, the placement of the modifier is perfect. Number Two shows that she made her decision slowly. Number Three suggests that her process of accumulation (not liberation) was gradual. Number Four is just awkward. Number Five is even more awkward.

Sure you could rewrite the sentence entirely to avoid splitting the infinitive, but you’d only do that to avoid splitting the infinitive, not to make it better or more clear.

I truly doubt that most of those writers who automatically and emphatically object to a split infinitive actually parse their written words this carefully. I think that if they did, their objection might fall away (or at least soften).

I’ll confess that I tend to avoid splitting infinitives, and perhaps I have some lingering, conditioned aversion to them, but I will split if the circumstances call for it, and at the very least, I give the matter some thought, which it seems many others do not.

*   *   *

With my defense of the split infinitive, I embark on a new category for this humble blog: Toolbox. It’s my hope that I will make occasional posts about various rhetorical devices in the writer’s toolbox, both as a way to explain them and as a way to learn them for my own possible use. As always, thanks for your patience with my rantings.

Explore posts in the same categories: Toolbox

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2 Comments on “Split infinitive”

  1. J.M. Reep Says:

    Good writers will learn the rules of grammar and obey them. Great writers will learn the rules of grammar and break them.

  2. rachel Says:

    Was this toolbox post written just for me?

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