Split Infinitives are Not Incorrect Grammatically

Daven Hiskey 12
Today I found out split infinitives are not incorrect grammatically.

As mentioned in the recent Star Trek “to boldy go” article (check that out here), the majority of modern English grammar guides list split infinitives as being perfectly acceptable.  This has also been the case, not just in modern usage, but throughout most of the history of the English language (since those split infinitives first popped up around the 13th century).

Indeed, Oxford Dictionaries states: “People have been splitting infinitives for centuries, especially in spoken English, and avoiding a split infinitive can sound clumsy. It can also change the emphasis of what’s being said.”

For example: “Jamie decided to slowly remove his hat.”  Obviously, aside from completely re-writing the sentence, there are three ways you could make a small modification to remove the split infinitive:

  • The first way is as such: “Jamie decided slowly to remove his hat.”  That changes the meaning of the sentence, so that option is out.
  • The second way would be: “Jamie decided to remove slowly his hat.”  That’s just awkward. (And I should know, I’m apparently a professional at creating awkwardly worded sentences, if you follow my work here) ;-)
  • The third way would be: “Jamie decided to remove his hat slowly.”  That’s much better, but is somewhat ambiguous as it isn’t completely clear whether he decided slowly or removed the hat slowly.

One could just completely re-write the sentence, of course, but why go to the effort when a split infinitive works perfectly well and is clear in terms of its meaning?

The idea that split infinitives should not be acceptable in proper English grammar didn’t come about until the 19th century, though it was a matter of much debate even then and into the 20th century.  For instance, in the 1907 The King’s English, they had this to say about the split infinitive:

The ‘split’ infinitive has taken such hold upon the consciences of journalists that, instead of warning the novice against splitting his infinitives, we must warn him against the curious superstition that the splitting or not splitting makes the difference between a good and a bad writer.

In the 20th century, the idea that split infinitives were bad and should never be used became firmly entrenched in many, but not all, grammar guides.  This didn’t last long and by the late 20th century split infinitives were again almost universally accepted.  That being said, some among the older generations still vehemently condemn their usage. This is the case is simply because that this was what they were taught when they were young. For instance, it was noted on a BBC special on English grammar in 1983:

One reason why the older generation feels so strongly about English grammar is that we were severely punished if we didn’t obey the rules! One split infinitive, one whack; two split infinitives, two whacks; and so on.

Surely that can’t be the only reason, you say? There must be some logical reason that split infinitives were for a time considered improper.  On the contrary, Merriam Webster’s Dictionary goes as far as to state: “there has never been a rational basis for objecting to the split infinitive.”   So why do so many Grammar Nazis lament the use of split infinitives, even though they are grammatically correct? Further, if there was never any “rational” basis, who first thought up the irrational basis for why split infinitives were bad?

The most popular theory is that it came about simply because, in academic circles, Latin has long been the language of choice, particularly in the late 19th century when split infinitives started to become taboo in some circles.  Thus, it is thought that split infinitives were perceived to be improper because you can’t split an infinitive in Latin…  Seriously, that’s the reason most linguists think split infinitives were originally thought to be taboo in English.  Everything since has just been tradition.

The other leading argument put forth in the anti-split infinitive camp tends to be because that’s not how people use English or speak, the “common usage” argument.    One of the first who helped popularize the anti-split infinitive movement, Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, used both arguments, though leaned more heavily on the “common usage” argument. In The Queen’s English (1864), he stated:

A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives the instance ‘to scientifically illustrate.’ But surely this practice is entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me that we ever regard the ‘to’ of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And when we have the choice between the two forms of expression ‘to scientifically illustrate’ and ‘to illustrate scientifically,’ there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.

However, that argument doesn’t hold water, given that people used split infinitives before they were widely objected to.  Further, there certainly is a good reason for using split infinitives when it makes the statement clearer, as using split infinitives often does.  As stated in Curme’s Grammar of the English Language: “[split infinitive usage] should be furthered rather than censured, for it makes for clearer expression.”

I’ll close on this topic by including a fantastic quote from author Raymond Chandler to his editor at The Atlantic Monthly.  Chandler didn’t appreciate the removal of split infinitives from his work and had this to say about it:

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.

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12 Comments »

  1. Adam March 2, 2012 at 2:06 am - Reply

    In addition, “to” is only an indicator of the infinitive; it is not part of the infinitive. An infinitive verb has no extra parts: no conjugation or participial form or other modification–it is”unlimited,” which is the meaning of “infinitive.” The infinitive of “run” is “run.” You don’t look up “to run” in the dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary says that the infinitive is “often preceded by “to,” but that the infinitive appears without it, as in “She had them read the letter.” There is no grammatical reason you can’t separate the indicator from the infinitive.)

    Thus

    A) “To boldly go” does not split an infinitive, and
    B) You can’t split an infinitive in English, since “to” is not part of the infinitive.

  2. Pheo May 18, 2012 at 4:13 am - Reply

    The third way would be: “Jamie decided to remove his hat slowly.” That’s much better, but is somewhat ambiguous as it isn’t completely clear whether he decided slowly or removed the hat slowly.

    No…It’s very clear that he removed the hat slowly. If it was Jamie deciding slowly it would be

    “Jamie slowly decided to remove his hat”

    gg

  3. Joanne Friedman August 30, 2014 at 11:50 am - Reply

    No, Pheo, it actually is more ambiguous to ESL speakers. You are correct based on the proximity of the adverb to the verb, and that is a point well taken. But more important, shifting the modifier steals the flavor of the sentence for no good reason. I’m a HUGE fan of Linguistic Drift, and letting it be. In this case we’re actually drifting back again, which is chuckle-worthy.

  4. Basil Fernie November 4, 2014 at 12:32 am - Reply

    Although I am willing to an infinitive where beneficial split, doing that usually weakens what is being said. My mind analyses the incoming word stream “to boldly go” as follows:

    “to” – Aha, here comes a verb, it will tell me what is needing to be done

    “boldly” – Noooo! This is telling me how to do something, but leaving me in ignorance of what must be done! !!*/%$#@!! I am being manipulated into accepting HOW something should be done before I have learned WHAT it is and agreed that it should be done? Epic fail!

    “go” – sorry, I lost interest, your style is ineffective because it puts the cart before the horse, and frankly I have a very low quota of patience for disentangling meaning from garbled statements. I didn’t actually hear your verb, and selective amnesia has destroyed your adverb. Better try again, using a syntax where priority is assigned more rationally, less emotionally.

    And for the record, my second home language is a derivative of German in which the verb comes riiiiight at the end of its clause. I use it quite a lot, but with a sense of linguistic sado-masochism.

    Linguistic Drift has two major driving forces pushing usage hither and yon: Laziness and Ignorance. Occasionally a little discipline is imposed exogenously, but its clarifying effects are generally countered after a while by these two endemic and mutually reinforcing language-wreckers.

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