The Split Infinitive – To Use or Not to Use It

Writers should learn not to split their infinitives, goes the old witticism. And in fact the sticklers will caution you against ever splitting the infinitive either in written or spoken language. So it is that the split infinitive is still a matter of debate – is it correct grammar? Is it good style or a solecism?

What Is a Split Infinitive?

One of the best known examples of the split infinitive is from the tagline of the popular TV show Star TrekTo boldly go where no man has. The full infinitive here is “to go”, but the adjective inserted within the phrase, viz. “boldly”, splits the infinitive. Other examples of split infinitives would be:

  • We are determined to completely eradicate this scourge
  • I want to really visit Greece
  • He wanted to quickly leave
  • She tries to better understand her course work

To Split or Not to Split

An argument against the split infinitive was famously made by Henry Alford in his definitive book called Plea for the Queen’s English dating back to 1864. Alford apparently saw no good reason to use this construction, since according to him the infinitive should be inseparable from its verb. Other early experts dismissed the split infinitive as a “disagreeable affectation” or a “common fault”.

However later authorities on grammar have regarded the split infinitive with rather less disfavor. In the early 1900s, Author George Bernard Shaw and grammarians such as Fowler spoke in favor of the usage. And by the second half of the twentieth century, the split infinitive was being positively endorsed. In the 1960, Wilson Follett in Modern American Usage observed that the split infinitive had its place in good composition. In fact in modern times, it is difficult to find any authority who will categorically state that the split infinitive is bad grammar or that it should be avoided always.

The current view of the split infinitive seems to be best explained as it was expressed by Theodore Bernstein in 1985. Bernstein opined that while infinitives shouldn’t be split routinely (or do we mean “be routinely split”), they should be split where it improves the sentence.

In fact, every so often, a split infinitive will explain something more clearly. In such cases, not using a split infinitive may convey the sense less accurately. For instance the sentence “I want to really visit Greece” indicates that the speaker wants to visit Greece in a proper or thorough manner. If the same sentence were to be written without splitting the infinitive “I really want to visit Greece” it could mean that simply that the speaker has a great desire to visit the country.

So we can conclude that here is really no rational basis for abjuring it, and most experts agree that it is acceptable and even advisable to split infinitives when required.

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