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Don’t Split Infinitives – Fact or Myth?

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig, Grammar Rules Tags: Brian Klems, online editor blog.

Q: I was taught by my English teachers over the years not to split infinitives, but now I see writers splitting them all the time. What gives? —Anonymous

Growing up, I also had many teachers who taught me not to split infinitives—just as they taught me not to start a sentence with a conjunction. But, as with the conjunction myth, there is actually no rule that says you can’t split infinitives. Let me explain. [Help spread the word — Tweet it!]

An infinitive is a verb form that generally involves two words, the first of which is usually “to”—to run, to write, to somersault, to tickle, etc. Splitting an infinitive means to sneak an adverb in between those two words: I’m going to quickly run to the store.

The most famous of all split infinitives comes from the Star Trek gang: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” (I wonder if they are able to split infinitives in Klingon, too?)

While you may find some grammar style guides that recommend against it (Garner’s Modern American Usage is one), you’ll be hard-pressed to find any that completely and wholeheartedly ban it. But does that mean you should split infinitives? Probably not.

[Do you underline book titles? Underline them? Put book titles in quotes? Find out here.]

So many people believe the myth (including some editors) that splitting an infinitive in your query letter or pitch may mar the first impression you’re making, even though you’re not actually breaking any rules. The cons of choosing to split infinitives (annoying some editors, being called out by your blog readers for “lazy” writing, etc.) usually outweigh the pros (proving that you know the real rule), so I recommend avoiding it when you can.

I know what you’re thinking: If this isn’t a rule, then why do so many teachers treat it as such? While I can’t get into every teacher’s head, I’m guessing they teach us not to split infinitives because, most of the time, sentences are stronger when infinitives are intact. It’s a teacher’s way of keeping us from bad writing habits.

But if you feel the need to boldly go where few teachers (and editors) have let you go before, you can do so knowing that you’re not breaking any rules. Just be prepared to quickly send them this article when they call you out.

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9 Responses to Don’t Split Infinitives – Fact or Myth?

  1. atwhatcost says:

    English teachers teach that because they were taught how to teach in college, not how to teach a particular subject or what to teach. Their teachers were taught how to teach from teachers who learned how to teach from their teachers. When teaching is the focus, what to teach fades into the background. (This also explains why students are rarely taught grammar, but are taught “important” things like how to text and write haiku.)

    The system for creating teachers is broken. Unfortunately, to some extent, it is the same problem the medical community has. It’s been proven residents lose their edge to treat patients without sleep in the last 24 hours; however, “we had to do that as residents, so you have to” is the usual response for why to keep the failed system. At least doctors are willing to advance the medicine. Teachers are still stuck in the 60s and blame it on the first grade teachers.

    I know, because I was taught how to teach in the 70s and it hasn’t changed.

  2. Martin Lake says:

    It is astonishing how people still consider this a rule to be followed, as if language is some form of etiquette. As Victoria says, Lowth wrote the advice (not a rule) because he believed that Latin, a dead language, was superior to English, a live one. It did not reflect the usage of the language, merely a misguided snobbery,

    Yet, in the passage where he gave this advice he said that it was preferable to split an infinitive rather than write convoluted, ugly language. He also, split his infinitives a couple of times in a few paragraphs.

    Good language follows usage not rules. Thank goodness that Shakespeare and not Lowth have the greater influence. And now I must check out why we’re told not to start sentences with conjunctions. But I will boldly go and drink a cup of tea first.

  3. Similar to the “boldly go” example, I helped my daughter who was struggling with the concept by the old line, “To effectively split an infinitive is difficult.” You could see the “Aha!” moment, the better to recognize her understanding.

    Not a ROTFLMAO, but maybe a slight grin.

    Marie, while “to go boldly” looses its oomph, the older usage, approaching archaic, “Boldly to go” retains and possibly enhances the strength of the phrase. This is from an avid Trekkie who watched the series in its first run in the sixties, and who is thereunto far overboard in loyalty.

  4. maureenmilliken says:

    As an editor who has been around for a long time, I’ll say this: Writers frequently look for excuses to be lazy. Sorry, that’s the truth. While it’s OK to split an infinitive, you have to know why you’re doing it and understand the language. Is it a better sentence with the infinitive split? Frequently when writers break “rules” it’s simply because they don’t want to be bothered to work hard to make sure what they’re writing is strong and good. So my advice to writers is, every word and sentence construction you use is a choice. The more you think about them and understand what you’re doing, the better your writing will be. If you want to split an infinitive just because you can, that’s not good enough. And your writing probably won’t be either.

  5. Victoria Rose says:

    There are times when it is preferable, for the sake of clarity, to split the infinitive. My favorite example of this is as follows: “The point is not to panic.” Well, if it isn’t “to panic,” then what is it? Ah, the point is to not panic. Or how about the semantic difference between “I really want to kiss him,” in which “really” modifies “want,” and “I want to really kiss him,” in which “really” modifies “kiss”? As an educated native speaker of English, “I want really to kiss him” sounds wrong, and if I try to get past that wrongness, it’s ambiguous. Which verb does “really” modify?

    The man responsible for this non-rule is Robert Lowth, a bishop who lived in the mid-1700s. At that time, English was a low-status language, and Latin was the educated lingua franca of Europe. In an effort to elevate the status of English, which is a Germanic language, he tried to impose some of the rules of Latin onto English. As Marie Rogers says, the infinitive in Latin is a single word, where in English it is two. Has no one ever wondered why there is no controversy about splitting other verb conjugations? In some contexts, such as questions, our grammatical rules require such splitting. To single out the infinitive for such a restriction is silly.

    • Pownal says:

      I agree totally with both Victoria Rose and Marie Rogers. As the middle class was rising in the 18th Century, they wanted to be able to talk and write like upper class folks. Without a written grammar for English, the grammarians such as Lowth provided grammar based on Latin (which later was copied into school textbooks for young English speakers). So, in addition to the split infinitive rule, we also had rules such as the “never end a sentence with a preposition” rule. Linguists would argue for “rules” that follow the way native speakers of English speak. (And for writers wanting to publish, the way educated English speakers write.) So, we try to put modifiers as close as possible to the word being modified (see “to boldly go”).

  6. sassy says:

    Either way, if it sounds awkward or affected, don’t do it. If it “boldly” says what one wants it to say, say it.

  7. Marie Rogers says:

    One teacher gave me this explanation. Much of English grammar comes from Latin, where you cannot split an infinitive. “To go” in Latin is “ire”. Because it is one word, not two, there is no way to split it. This rule carried over into English even though it’s easy to insert “boldly” between the two parts and “to go boldly” actually sounds awkward. However, when trying to impress someone, better to stick to the “rule”.

  8. jimbone21 says:

    If nothing else, the fact that you split infinitives with an adverb should make it a poor practice. Adverbs are, for the most part, filler. The same information, in the example it was boldly, could be expressed by showing the ways that the person or idea IS bold.

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