177 – Split infinitives

I’ve been pulled up a couple of times recently for using split infinitives in my writing, once by a co-author and once by an editor. However, the idea that a split infinitive is an error is a myth. Grammar experts agree that split infinitives are acceptable and can be good.

What is an infinitive? Two words, consisting of “to” and a verb. To go. To guess. To hide.

What is a split infinitive? An infinitive with another word (usually an adverb) in the middle. To quickly go. To cleverly guess. To furtively hide.

The rule not to split infinitives didn’t exist before the 19th century, and wasn’t widely applied until an English churchman named Henry Alford included it in his Plea for the Queen’s English in 1864. After that, the rule spread rapidly and in the 20th century was sometimes ruthlessly enforced in schools (which is perhaps the reason some people feel so strongly about it).

The basis for Alford’s objection was simply that split infinitives were not used in the Queen’s English. Others objected that it had not been used in older forms of English, so we should not start now. Some (such as the Oxford Dictionary) have claimed that the prohibition was “based on comparisons with the structure of Latin”, but according to Wikipedia, this is another myth. Of the people “who ascribe the split-infinitive prohibition to Latinism, none cite an authority who condemned the construction on that basis”.

So there you have it. The reason not to do it is that it’s not done — there is no logical linguistic reason to avoid it. But hold on … it is done. Particularly in spoken English, it’s very common. The only reason it’s not done more in written English is this silly baseless rule.

The Oxford Dictionary (among many other authorities) says there is no real justification for any prohibition on split infinitives, and points out that the rule can actually have adverse consequences by changing the meaning of a sentence. For example, they note that the sentence:

You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’]

doesn’t have quite the same meaning as:

You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’]

Interestingly, the Oxford Dictionary concludes that, even though there is nothing wrong with splitting infinitives, some people object to it strongly, so it’s safest to avoid it. I say phooey to that. What a terrible reason! I care about correct, not about safe.

To me, just about the strongest argument in favour of allowing split infinitives is the obvious stupidity of allowing the first four of the following sentences, but not the fifth.

I always strictly enforce good grammar.

I should strictly enforce good grammar.

I will strictly enforce good grammar.

I might strictly enforce good grammar.

I like to strictly enforce good grammar.

The split prohibitionists would require me to say “I like to enforce strictly good grammar” or “I like strictly to enforce good grammar“, but they both sound rubbish. I won’t do it!

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

5 Comments

  • Steve Schilizzi
    7 November, 2011 - 12:00 pm | link

    15 Nov 2010. To prohibit the use of split infinitives by reference to Latin is nonsensical. In Latin, you cannot split an infinitive even if you want to. It’s simply impossible, as the infinitive form is always in one word: amare (to love), pugnare (to fight), and even in the passive: amari (to be loved). (OK, OK, the past passive infinitive was in two words (amatum esse), but that was less used anyway!). Secondly, when it comes to grammar and in this case syntax, rather than morphology, English takes most of its structure from Germanic, secondarily from French (but not Latin). And in German, split infinitives are the NORM! Well, with a caveat. Like Latin, German (active) infinitives are in a single word: machen (to make), lachen (to laugh), etc. But: 1) passive infinitives are in two words: gemacht werden (to be made), etc., and, most importantly, German very often uses the infinitive with “zu”, the analog of “to” in English, but used in a sense close to “in order to” and also with many verbs that require an infinitive structure: e.g. he came to work: er kam, um zu arbeiten. With this construction, the “zu” is often separated from the infinitive, and THAT is the origin of the English split too. I don’t know who wrote that old English did not split the infinitive: it did, exactly like German does! Better still, in verbs with separable prefixes, German splits the infinitive within the verb!! E.g. he promised to come back: er versprach, wiederZUkommen (verb is: wiederkommen)!!! Since English is mainly a Germanic language when it comes to syntax (but not otherwise!), split infinitives are in the “spirit of the language” – in its Sprachgeist! — Steve Schilizzi

  • Ornello
    19 December, 2014 - 5:13 am | link

    As far as wiederzukommen is concerned, Steve has it exactly backwards! ‘Wieder’ is an adverb that can be combined with ‘kommen’, which is a verb, to form a compound verb ‘wiederkommen’. In order to prevent the unnatural-sounding ‘zu wiederkommen’, the adverb is split off from the verb so that the ‘zu’ can be placed immediately before the verb ‘kommen’.

  • Steven Schilizzi
    21 December, 2014 - 3:02 pm | link

    Ornello: On the contrary, Steve does not have it backwards at all. First, in the example given, “wieder” (again) is NOT an adverb, but what grammarians call a verb particle. In German, there are three kinds of verb particles: inseparable ones, separable ones, and mixed ones. As their names suggest, – and let’s focus on their use with the infinitive here – the first cannot ever be separated (i.e. split away) from the verb. The second type must always be split away in the infinitive. And the third type cannot be split with some verbs and must be split with other verbs, or, if used with the same verb, doesn’t mean the same thing in the two cases. Examples below will help clarify.

    – Inseparable particles include for example be-, er- and ver-: e.g. bekommen (to receive), erklären (to clarify), vergessen (to forget).
    – Separable particles are many and include for example, ab-, an-, auf-, and aus-: e.g. ab-fahren (to drive away), an-kommen (arrive), auf-stehen (stand up), aus-gehen (to walk out). Note that although these LOOK like adverbs, they are NOT adverbs when used as verb prefixes (but see more on this below).
    – Mixed particles include for example durch, um, and über: e.g.
    — durch-kommen (to pull through) vs. durchreisen (to visit by walking or driving around: to perambulate)
    — um-steigen (to change train or vehicle) vs. umgeben (to surround)
    — über-setzen (to bring someone across) vs. übersetzen (to translate)

    Interestingly, the particle “wieder” is normally separable (as in wieder-kommen or wieder-sehen) but it is inseparable in wiederholen (to repeat).
    So you must have: (um) wiederzukommen but you must also have (um) zu wiederholen (where ‘um’ here is a conjunction and means “in order to” or “so as to”)

    This, by the way, clearly proves that neither ‘wieder’ nor any of the other particles belong to the grammatical category of ‘adverbs’ when used in this way, even if, historically, the separable and mixed particles did originate from true adverbs. The same process can be seen in many other languages of the Indo-European family (e.g. in Latin, Greek and Russian). Although the line is very fine between the two uses, they are syntactically distinct.

    And so the examples given by David in English directly reflect the logic of the German mixed particle category:

    “You really have to watch him”. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’]
    doesn’t have quite the same meaning as:
    You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’]

    Exactly like: über-setzen (to bring someone across) = separable
    vs. übersetzen (to translate a text) = inseparable

    What David says is therefore rigorously consistent both with the logic of English and its Germanic (and even Indo-European) roots and with usage over more than a century. That people didn’t use the split 300 years ago is no argument, since languages are always changing over time. Whether they change “positively” or “negatively is purely a matter of taste or, perhaps, snobbery. If anyone doubts this, just look at what happened to French because of the would-be rulings of the Académie Française – today, for most French people, not even a laughing stock. Just a shrug.

  • 21 December, 2014 - 5:08 pm | link

    There have been a number of abusive comments about this post, helpfully pointing out that I am stupid, disgusting and a moron. Reasoned and reasonable comments are welcome. Abusive comments will not be displayed.

  • 25 May, 2018 - 8:03 am | link

    The Economists has come out decisively in favour of split infinitives in their latest Style Guide: https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2018/04/28/the-ban-on-split-infinitives-is-an-idea-whose-time-never-came

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