Split infinitive

From Academic Kids

A split infinitive is a grammatical construction in the English language produced by inserting a word or phrase, usually an adverb or adverbial phrase, between to and a verb in its infinitive form. One famous example is from the television series Star Trek: "to boldly go where no man has gone before." Here, the infinitive verb form of go is to go, and the adverb boldly has been inserted, creating a split infinitive. To avoid splitting the infinitive, the phrase could be reworded: "to go boldly where no man has gone before" or "boldly to go where no man has gone before." (It should be noted that these two rephrasings do not have identical meanings — the former attaches the boldness to the manner of going, while the latter attaches the boldness to the complete act of going "where no man has gone before.")

Descriptively speaking, split infinitives are common in all varieties of informal English; however, their status as part of the standard language is controversial. In the 19th century, some grammatical authorities sought to introduce a prescriptive rule that split infinitives should not be used in English. Most authorities from the last 100 years, however, agree that this rule was misguided, and indeed that splitting an infinitive can sometimes reduce ambiguity. Template:Spoken Wikipedia


Claims that split infinitives are wrong

Split infinitives have been in use since the 13th century, although by the 16th Century they were rare in some of the most notable authors. (Shakespeare used one, in Sonnet 142; Spenser, Dryden, Pope, and the King James Version of the Bible used none.) They became more common in the 19th century, and general awareness seems to have started when Henry Alford condemned them in Plea for the Queen's English, published in 1866. Alford's condemnation was on the basis of common usage. By the end of the century, the prohibition was firmly established in the press and popular belief. The first known use of the term "split infinitive" was in 1897.

The argument from Latin

It is sometimes stated that a criticism of split infinitives in English is that they are impossible in Latin. Although we have no documentation of any authority who has used this criticism (rather than ascribing it to others), it is worth examining.

Most Latin infinitives cannot be split because they are formed simply by adding a suffix to a verb root (e.g. the single word amare functions like the English two-word phrase "to love"). But certain rarer Latin infinitives do use a two-word phrase: the future active infinitive (e.g. amaturus esse, "to be about to love") and the perfect passive infinitive (amatus esse, "to have been loved"). (These two-word infinitive phrases, however, are a participle plus an infinitive of the verb "to be"; so it may be thought that the esse is somehow the "infinitive proper" — and it is, of course, incapable of being split.) Also, the majority of finite verb forms in Latin are also expressed with only one word, for example amo meaning "I love". Therefore, the Latin-based argument against splitting English infinitives ought to just as well apply to English finite verb forms; yet no one objects to the separation of I from love in I really love you.

Some authorities (for example, Jespersen and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage) claim that the English infinitive is also a single word. The modern English infinitive evolved from its Middle English counterpart, which was marked by the endings -e and -en. The use of to with the infinitive in Middle English almost exactly matched its use in modern English; that is, sometimes it was used, and sometimes not. (See the article on the infinitive for examples of the infinitive without to in modern English.)


Just as the prohibition against the split infinitive was becoming part of popular culture, there was a reaction against it among leading writers and grammarians. For example, in the 1907 edition of The King's English, the Fowler brothers wrote:

"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."

The reaction against this "superstition" was based on grammatical, historical, and stylistic considerations. Grammatically, the prohibition of split infinitives was thought to be a nonsensical application of Latin grammar to a Germanic language. There are good grounds to argue that to is not part of the infinitive in English. Neither its German cognate zu, nor its Dutch cognate te is considered part of the infinitive in their respective languages, although many sentences use it the same way as English uses to. Historically, English writers have been separating to from the infinitive at least since Layamon in 1250. Notable authors who have used them at least once include John Donne, Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, Abraham Lincoln, George Eliot, Henry James, and Willa CatherTemplate:Mn. And, stylistically, the careful placement of another word between to and the infinitive sometimes avoids ambiguity or ugliness.

The old prohibition on split infinitives is even more surprising when one observes that there are a number of expressions in English that are weakened considerably by avoiding the split infinitive. The phrase "I plan to really enjoy the party" is perceived by native speakers as far more natural and rhythmic than possible non-split infinitive alternatives such as "I plan really to enjoy the party" and "I plan to enjoy really the party", both of which are perceived as artificial. The final possible alternative, "I plan to enjoy the party, really" actually possesses a slightly different meaning — putting the "really" on the end here shifts the meaning of the sentence to imply that the speaker is protesting against some previous suggestion that the speaker would somehow not enjoy the party. (The otherwise perfectly acceptable variation "I really plan to enjoy the party" is not relevant to this particular discussion, as the adverb here modifies the indicative verb "plan" rather than the infinitive "enjoy".)

There was frequent skirmishing between the splitters and anti-splitters up until the 1960s. George Bernard Shaw wrote letters to newspapers supporting writers who used the split infinitive, and Raymond Chandler complained to his publisher about a proofreader who changed Chandler's split infinitives.

Current views

Even as some grammarians (Alford, cited above; Bache, 1869; Hodgson, 1889) were condemning the split infinitive, others (Brown, 1851; Onions, 1904; Jespersen, 1905; Fowler and Fowler, cited above) were endorsing it. In the present day, all reference texts of grammar deem simple split infinitives unobjectionable. (Compound split infinitives remain controversial; see Special situations below.)

H. W. Fowler later wrote, in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, that writers who avoid split infinitives are "bogy-haunted creatures". Curme's Grammar of the English Language (1931) says that, not only is the split infinitive correct, but it "should be furthered rather than censured, for it makes for clearer expression". The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) notes that the split infinitive "eliminates all possibility of ambiguity", in contrast to the "potential for confusion" in an unsplit construction. The American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996) states: "The only rationale for condemning the construction is based on a false analogy with Latin."

Nevertheless, many teachers of English still admonish students against using split infinitives. Because the prohibition has become so widely known, the Columbia Guide (1993, above) recommends that writers "follow the conservative path [of avoiding split infinitives when they are not necessary], especially when you're uncertain of your readers' expectations and sensitivities in this matter". When, in a given situation, the only alternatives to a split infinitive are either awkward and unnatural-sounding or change the intended meaning, it is often possible to reformulate the sentence (perhaps by rephrasing it without an infinitive) and thus avoid the issue altogether.

Problems caused by trying to avoid the split infinitive

The meaning of certain expressions can be changed completely by avoiding the split infinitive. The sentence "He failed to completely understand the book" suggests that the understanding is not complete, whereas "He failed completely to understand the book" implies that no understanding was achieved at all. Another alternative, "He failed to understand the book completely", is ambiguous: some listeners may think the failure was complete, rather than the understanding incomplete. By placing the adverb after the infinitive ("He failed to understand completely the book"), a fourth variation can be obtained; this version, although unambiguous in meaning, has been called "unnatural" by Fowler, in the sense that the word order is not one most English-speakers would naturally use unless consciously trying to avoid a split infinitive.

In other instances, use of a split infinitive is for many people the most natural way to add certain kinds of emphasis in conversation:

Student A: "I'm going to do better next year."
Student B: "I'm going to really do better next year."

On a historical level, it is possible that years of attacks against split infinitives by strict grammarians have cowed some people into needless reluctance to split other compound verb forms. For example, people will contort sentences to avoid placing an adverb in its usual position between the auxiliary verb and the participle, leading to constructions such as, "The argument originally had been used..." instead of "The argument had originally been used", which is more natural for most speakers.

Special situations

Compound split infinitives (where more than one adverb is employed) and other multi-word insertions are still contentious; as recently as 1996 the usage panel of The American Heritage Book of English Usage were evenly divided for and against such sentences as "I expect him to completely and utterly fail." More than three-quarters of the panel rejected "We are seeking a plan to gradually, systematically, and economically relieve the burden." On the other hand, 87% of the panel deemed acceptable the multi-word adverb in "We expect our output to more than double in a year."

Splitting infinitives with negations, as in the phrase "I want to not see you any more", is one of the trickiest areas of contention. Some people who are generally tolerant towards split infinitives draw the line at those split by negation, calling them awkward or ungrammatical. However, the relative inflexibility of negation makes it hard to reformulate such sentences: while "I want to happily run" can easily be altered to "I want to run happily", "I want to see you not" is not a viable alternative. The possibilities are moving up the "not" to immediately before the infinitive ("I want not to see you any more"), which sounds awkward to most people; or negating the verb rather than the desire ("I don't want to see you anymore") — which, some might object, entirely alters the meaning of the sentence; or simply "I want to see you no more." There are rare examples of non-adverbial insertions into infinitives, as in "It was their nature to all hurt one another." These have endured the same shifts of opinion and gradual acceptance as adverbs.

See also

External links


Template:Mnb The American HeritageŽ Book of English Usage on split infinitives (http://www.bartleby.com/64/C001/059.html)


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