top of page

Split Infinitives: is it wrong to intentionally split them?

Why does splitting them get some people upset?

Actually, there is nothing wrong at all with splitting infinitives, as long as it is done so in the correct context.


There are the odd occasions where splitting them would make a sentence more 'clunky', unnatural to read, and even bad style. But there are many other examples where splitting them would in fact reduce the possibility of misunderstanding something, and to not split them would affect the rhythm of reading (just like the example in that last sentence). 


Now I know there are a number of you reading this who are already asking, 'When are you going to finally answer the question "what is a split infinitive?"'


Well, I suppose we should really say 'a split full infinitive'. A full infinitive is to verbto play, to eat, to drink, to participate, to manage, etc. But we do not.


The problem with the split infinitive is when we add another word - usually an adverb - between 'to' and the verb: To eagerly wait, to vastly increase, to intentionally split infinitives, etc. 'To wait' and 'to increase' have been split by the adverbs 'eagerly' and 'vastly', and so we get the split infinitive.


It is becoming a bit of a cliche now in all the grammar forums on the Internet, but the most famous example of the split infinitive comes from the American TV series Star Trek, 'To boldly go where no one has gone before!' (To go split by the adverb boldly.)


But there are many people who will stand by their beliefs that the infinitive should not be split under any circumstances. They claim this is bad English and the sentence should be rewritten altogether.


So where has this 'rule' come from?

We shall begin with a history lesson. 


Before English, the people in early Britain spoke Celtic languages. Then the Romans came and brought Latin, the influence of which would remain important on English up to the 18th century. Then the Anglo-Saxons from Northern Germany settled/invaded Britain, and their language became the basis for English. Early English (Old and modern) infinitives used to be made up of one word, as did Latin and so do many languages around the world today. Although later the two-word form was used, very few split the infinitive (although there is one example of a split infinitive from William Shakespeare), and this remained until around the 19th century: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walter Scott, John Keats, Jerome K. Jerome, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy... (Thanks to Oliver Kamm for that list.) Many analysts believe that the influence of Latin, which was very strong in academic and scientific circles, ensured that any 'splitting' during that time was seen as poor English. 


The popularity of the split infinitive increased in the 19th century, with several notable writers of the time using it in their work. 


There was some criticism of splitting infinitives in the 19th century both in the United States and the UK., which began in 1834 when a writer only known as 'P' decided that as there was currently no rule about splitting the infinitive, he would have one - perhaps because the classical languages, Greek and Latin, did not, and Latin in particular was still very influential. In the early 20th century noted lexicographer, Henry Fowler (who worked on A Dictionary of Modern English Usage and the Concise Oxford Dictionary, and was described by one newspaper as "a lexicographical genius"), effectively dismissed the split infinitive in the 1907 edition of 'the King's English', claiming that it made the difference between a good writer and a bad writer, but did add that English speakers who didn't care about them were 'to be envied'. And in the UK at least, it is this that has seen to be the source of this unofficial rule of not splitting infinitives. Supposedly children in the early 20th century were punished if they dared to split the infinitive in their essays!


Even now, there are split infinitive haters who would probably love to do the same to professional writers. I'm quoting a list of them here from Oliver Kamm's book 'Accidence Will Happen' (2015): Simon Heffer, British journalist, author and political commentator, and author of the book Strictly English: The correct way to write... and why it matters (2010), which was heavily criticised by many linguists; Michael Dummett, a British philosopher, and author of Grammar and Style (1993), claimed it was 'unnatural to the language'; Neville Martin Gwynne, linguist and author of Gwynne's Grammar (2013), claims that 'scarely a single instance of a split infinitive is to be found in the classical authors of the last two centuries'. Oliver Kamm quotes many examples (see above for some authors who have done so), and I'm sure many commentators would also find plenty too.


So. Split infinitive haters, I have some bad news for you.


There is no such rule that says you can't split infinitives, as long as it does not affect the style or rhythm of the text.


To avoid splitting infinitives in the Star Trek example, it would have to read 'to go boldly' (which is weak and does not have that 'rhythm') or 'boldly to go' (just horrible), or would have to be completely rewritten (According to Kamm, Simon Heffer says 'to go boldly' is correct). But to do so would make Captain Kirk (or Picard)'s statement sound overly formal in the context. And how could you possibly rewrite that to maximise its impact?


There are several examples on various sites that show that splitting infinitives can avoid misunderstandings. Here is perhaps the best known example:


They decided to more than double the amount of money available. (They increased the budget by more than 100%)

They decided more than to double the amount of money available. (They decided something else as well as the amount of money available)

They decided to double more than the amount of money available. (They decided to double something else too).


Here is another one:


Eric decided slowly to remove his hat.  (It was a slow decision to take off his hat!)

Eric decided to remove his hat slowly.  (Did he decide slowly or take off his hat slowly?)

Eric decided to slowly remove his hat. (He took off his hat slowly!)


Eric decided to remove slowly his hat.  

Okay, the abiguity is gone, but try saying that naturally!


It would, of course, be bad English if you split infinitives in this way: 

They wanted to properly do this (possible, but 'do this properly' is much more acceptable in a formal context!)

We will try to more clearly articulate company policy. (It would be better to write 'to articulate company policy more clearly'. Again, note that in formal contexts, avoiding the split infinitive would get the message across more firmly.)


The next three examples could be split, but their meaning is clear and more elegant without doing so:

The company do not want to increase wages substantially. 

As a family, you should all know that you have to listen to your mother at all times.

We must have procedures as it is important to deal with any problems quickly.

However, there are many 'old school' individuals (an idiom meaning people who have been in something for a very long time and are unwilling to change their views) who have found themselves in the very highest positions. As well as a number of Conservative politicians in the UK: 'There will never be a time when you don't have constantly to make sure that the party is in tune with Britain as it is.' (Francis Maude - isn't that just a clumsy piece of writing overall? Courtesy of The Independent), there are other grammar 'pedants' (people who refuse to change their opinions about rules that they believe are right) in publishing, such as editors. Many of these 'experts' of English are still fixed in their belief that infinitives should not be split under any circumstances, as they believe it is bad style and simply lazy writing. Indeed, it has been claimed that even job applications have been turned down for publishing positions because the unfortunate applicant included a split infinitive in their CV or covering letter! Now I am aware that magazines and newspapers have something called 'house styles', that is, a set of writing rules that writers have to follow so that their articles are consistent with the overall style of the magazine. But the non-splitting of infinitives should not be one of them.


You could, of course, follow other people's advice and just rewrite the sentence completely. But worse sentences can be created in that mad view that split infinitives should be avoided (such as the Francis Maude example).


Now I have checked several dictionary and grammar websites, and all agree that there is no problem with splitting infinitives, as long as it does not lead to a more clumsy and bad style sentence. Indeed, you have nothing to worry about if it is necessary to write a thesis or an essay in your final exams and you decide to split an infinitive. As long as it is not done clumsily, of course.


Along with Oliver Kamm, the author of Typical Errors of English has no problem with splitting infinitives. Whilst he cannot remember doing so within his wonderful publication, if he has, he would like to, clearly and categorically, state here and now that he will defend any argument that seeks to rigorously attack those who choose to freely make use of the split infinitive.


Unfortunately, an awful lot of individuals that matter - as regards any careers in writing - are those that make the decisions. Many of them are style guides. I even had one request for proofing from an agency where the client specifically requested, amongst other things, 'avoiding splitting infinitives'. Rightly or wrongly, I emailed straight back to the agency explaining that there was no rule. I got the job, but as it turned out the opportunity to split an infinitive for better prose never presented itself.


So what am I saying? If you do not want to take the risk of splitting the infinitive even though you know it would prevent ambiguity or even a fine and perfectly acceptable piece of text, you will just have to completely rewrite it.

bottom of page