Infinitives: to boldly split, or not?

In theory you shouldn’t add an adverb between the “to” and the verb in an infinitive, e.g. “to seriously consider,” instead sticking the adverb either before the infinitive (“seriously to consider”) or after (“to consider seriously.) Did it all start with Star Trek and “to boldly go?

Apparently not; English speakers have been arguing about it for hundreds of years.

Wikipedia sits on the fence: As the split infinitive became more common in the 19th century, some grammatical authorities sought to introduce a prescriptive rule against it. The construction is still the subject of disagreement among native English speakers as to whether it is grammatically correct or good style: “No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the 19c [19th century]: raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned.” However, most modern English usage guides have dropped the objection to the split infinitive.’

Have they really? Not necessarily. The University of Bristol Faculty of Arts warns“Split infinitives have, traditionally, been regarded by some commentators as anathema, something to be avoided at all costs. There is no rational basis for this rule; splitting infinitives is commonplace in spoken language, and even in written English it may be clearer or more elegant to do so. In general, however, split infinitives should be avoided in the formal register of an essay or other piece of academic writing, unless the alternative seems excessively awkward or clumsy. Usually it is sufficient to move the offending word so that it comes either before or after the infinitive.”

The US-based GetItWriteOnline.com explains why splitting infinitives can make your writing unclear, or at least clumsy: Because an infinitive expresses a single idea, a unit of thought, we try to keep its two parts–the marker to and the root verb that follows it–together if we can. After all, our job as writers is to make our reader’s job as easy as possible, and keeping logical units of thought intact generally promotes that effort. Most writers would agree that the following sentences containing split infinitives are awkward–or at least not as readable and clear as the “improved” sentences that follow (the infinitives are underlined):

  • She agreed to quickly and quietly leave the room. 
  • She agreed to leave the room quickly and quietly.
  • We should try to whenever possible avoid splitting infinitives. 
  • We should try to avoid splitting infinitives whenever possible.”

And my own view? Having read numerous blogposts and website entries on this topic I now can safely say that for anyone to complain about split infinitives is outdated and stuffy. What the majority are saying, as these examples here show, is that the most important objective is to make what you write as clear and as easy to understand as possible. Thank Heavens for that … isn’t it nice to see a bit of sanity creeping quietly into the English language?

Never split an infinitive again (unless you want to):

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

Startrek image borrowed with many thanks from TopazPartners.

Comments

comments

Thoughts

  1. Shakespeare ignored rules and therefore to brazenly split infinitives is my prerogative

    • As far as I’m aware Shakespeare was pretty naughty in his writing generally – a lot of the language he used was actually considered rude in his day, although the terms are no longer in use now. Still, he couldn’t half tell a “ripping yarn…”

  2. I shouldn’t matter any more, it really shouldn’t. So why does it still grate on me?

  3. I would NEVER use split infinitives but then I was always good at grammar and taught it to 10 to 12 year old kids in the 70s ….. hmmm 🙂

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