split infinitive

split infinitive
split infinitive
1. A split infinitive occurs when a word (usually an adverb) or phrase comes between the particle to and the verb of a so-called to-infinitive (to really love / to really and truly love). No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the 19c: raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned. The term itself is first recorded as recently as the 1890s, although the controversy is somewhat older and the practice very much so. Examples occur in Middle English (though only twice in Chaucer) but it went out of fashion from the 16c to the end of the 18c, and no examples have been found in Shakespeare (unless we count Sonnet 142: Root pity in thy heart, that when it grows, Thy pity may deserve to pitied be). During the 19c it came back into favour, with examples to be found in Fanny Burney, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, and most famously in a poem of Byron:

• To sit on rocks to muse o'er flood and fell, To slowly trace the forest's shady scene —Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, 1812.

2. Now, at the start of a new century the split infinitive is widely held to be an error on the grounds that the particle to and its verb belong together. The basis for this belief is highly questionable, because other separations occur, for example between a verb and its auxiliary verb (I have never said so / We would always ask you first). An altogether more compelling argument for avoiding split infinitives is that they can jar and sound ugly. This argument makes the issue one of style rather than grammar, and is especially valid when the adverb can be placed naturally in another position or when the split is a lengthy one:

• We talked about how everything was going to suddenly change —Nigel Williams, 1985

(defensible on grounds of emphasis, perhaps, but the normal order is We talked about how everything was suddenly going to change)

• You two shared a curious dry ability to without actually saying anything make me feel dirty —Philip Roth, 1987

(split here for effect)

• Lectures…were introduced in the Middle Ages only because it was not possible to affordably type lecture notes for students —Independent, 2006

(better to put the adverb at the end of the phrase: not possible to type lecture notes affordably for students).
3. On the other hand, the split infinitive avoided, usually by putting the adverb before or after the entire to-infinitive, can lead to results that are just as unnatural, often stylistically poor, and in some cases ambiguous or misleading:

• Rhys considers it unwise to attempt radically to alter taxes on large cars, as proposed by Labour —Autocar and Motor, 1990

• It should be the Government's task quietly to advocate such a comprehensive strategy with our American allies —Times, 1998

• I know too that repeatedly to drink and drive is a profound and serious matter —Independent, 2007.

In these examples the natural position of the adverbs radically, quietly, and repeatedly is after the word to, and in the first case the important connection between radically and the verb it qualifies (alter) is compromised; in the second, there is a similar effect with quietly and advocate; and in the third, the sensible alternative is to recast the sentence and avoid the problem altogether (I know too that repeated drink-driving is a profound and serious matter). In some cases, the adverb becomes attached to the wrong verb:

• It was in Paris that the wartime alliance began finally to break up —television broadcast, 1998.

It is arguable in these cases that the adverb, or adverb phrase, has a stronger claim to association with the verb than does the purely functional particle to. In writing it is often possible to rephrase so as to avoid the hazard altogether (as above), but in speech a sentence once begun has to be finished, and sometimes an infinitive is better split either because the rhythm of the sentence demands it or because ambiguity might otherwise result.
4. When an adverb, especially an intensifying adverb such as actually, even, ever, further, just, quite, really, belongs with a verb that happens to be an infinitive, it is usually better (and sometimes necessary) to place it between to and the verb:

• I want to really study, I want to be a scholar —Iris Murdoch, 1987

• In face of all this Patrick managed to quite like him —Kingsley Amis, 1988.

In some cases, an adverbial phrase is also inseparable from its verb:

• It allowed Fernanda Herford to slightly more than double her money —Julian Barnes, 1993

(where slightly more than double is in effect a verb phrase).
5. recommendation.
The split infinitive, though recent as an object of disapproval in the broader context of the history of English, has sufficient weight of opinion against it to recommend avoidance when possible, and especially when it is stylistically awkward. But it is neither a major error nor a grammatical blunder, and it is acceptable and at times necessary when considerations of rhythm and clarity call for it.

Modern English usage. 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • split infinitive — split′ infin′itive n. use gram. an expression in which there is a word or phrase, usu. an adverb or adverbial phrase, between to and its accompanying verb form in an infinitive, as in to readily understand[/ex] • Etymology: 1895–1900 usage: The… …   From formal English to slang

  • Split infinitive — (Gram.) A simple infinitive with to, having a modifier between the verb and the to; as in, to largely decrease. Called also {cleft infinitive}. Note: The use of the split infinitive is commonly considered to be ungrammatical, but by most… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • split infinitive — ► NOUN ▪ a construction consisting of an infinitive with an adverb or other word inserted between to and the verb, e.g. she seems to really like it. USAGE It is still widely held that splitting infinitives is wrong, a view based on an analogy… …   English terms dictionary

  • split infinitive — split infinitives N COUNT A split infinitive is a structure in which an adverb is put between to and the infinitive of a verb, as in to really experience it . Some people think it is incorrect to use split infinitives …   English dictionary

  • split infinitive — n. Gram. an infinitive with an adverb or other modifier placed between to and the verb form (Ex.: he decided to gradually change his methods): although some object to this construction, many writers use split infinitives where ambiguity or wrong… …   English World dictionary

  • Split infinitive — A split infinitive is an English language grammatical construction in which a word or phrase, usually an adverb or adverbial phrase, comes between the marker to and the bare infinitive (uninflected) form of a verb. For example, a split infinitive …   Wikipedia

  • split infinitive — noun Date: 1897 an infinitive with to having a modifier between the to and the verbal (as in “to really start”) Usage: The split infinitive was discovered and named in the 19th century. 19th century writers seem to have made greater use of this… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • split infinitive — Gram. an expression in which there is a word or phrase, esp. an adverb or adverbial phrase, between to and its accompanying verb form in an infinitive, as in to readily understand. [1895 1900] Usage. The rule against placing a word, especially an …   Universalium

  • split infinitive — noun an infinitive with an adverb between to and the verb (e.g., to boldly go ) • Hypernyms: ↑infinitive * * * noun, pl ⋯ tives [count] grammar : an English phrase in which an adverb or other word is placed between to and a verb “To really start” …   Useful english dictionary

  • split infinitive — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms split infinitive : singular split infinitive plural split infinitives linguistics an infinitive in which there is an adverb between the word to and the verb, as in the phrase to completely understand . Some… …   English dictionary