What is a Split Infinitive: Grammar Guide

Original Star Trek Cast
Original Star Trek Cast

To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before

I received an email regarding split infinitives. Our fellow Hubber wrote: Will you write a Hub on split infinitives? "I think they're okay; a friend of mine insists they're not. We decided to let you settle the score."

What pressure! In this Hub, I'll give you the basics; tell you what the experts say; give you my two cents; and then let you decide.

One of the most famous split infinitives is the Star Trek saying, "To boldly go where no man has gone before". First, let's start off with a definition of split infinitive, then we'll analyze the Star Trek statement and see if it's grammatically correct.

Definition

Infinitive: an infinitive is the basic part of a verb, e.g., to dance, to sing, to play, to go.

Split infinitive: a split infinitive occurs when an infinitive (to dance, to sing, to play, to go) is split in two by an adverb (a word that modifies the verb). For example:

  • to gracefully dance
  • to horribly sing
  • to aggressively play
  • to boldly go

  • (The infinitives are in bold and the adverbs are underlined.)

What do the experts say?

The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English

Fifty percent of grammarians on the American Heritage panel believe that the split infinitive is okay, the other half do not. The majority do agree that more than one adverb in between an infinitive is not advised. Here is their example, "We are seeking a plan to gradually, systematically, and economically relieve the burden." They do not like the use of this split infinitive.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English

This organization advises a writer to be wary of using split infinitives unless it decreases ambiguity. They use the example of these three sentences:

The driver is instructed periodically to check the oil level

The driver is instructed to periodically check the oil level.

The driver is instructed to check the oil level periodically.

Do you know which sentence is the split infinitive? The second sentence is the split infinitive because "periodically" is splitting the infinitive "to check". Although, the second sentence is the split infinitive, it is the most unambiguous; is the driver told to check the oil periodically, or is he physically checking the oil periodically. In this example, they believe the split infinitive is the best choice.

Ask Oxford-The Oxford Dictionary

The Oxford Dictionary calls split infinitives a myth. They believe they are "poor style" but not grammatically incorrect.

What I think...

For many years grammarians have noted that split infinitives are incorrect. Their reasoning: in Latin an infinitive is one word, thus splitting it would be incorrect. However, although our language is based in Latin, it is not Latin, and in English an infinitive is two words.

I think split infinitives are okay if used with caution. In the Star Trek statement, "To boldly go where no man has gone before," the sentence would not have the same effect if it were worded differently. E.g., "To go boldly where no man has gone before," or "To go where no man has gone before boldly". These last two sentences just don't have the same effect.

But beware: In some instances, the split infinitive makes a sentence sound awkward.

  • To gracefully dance is an art form. (An awkward split infinitive sentence.)
  • To dance gracefully is an art form. (Grammatically correct and better sounding.)

Last note: English grammar is incredibly dynamic. Grammarians disagree with one another on a consistent basis. This is evident when English usage panels are split on correct usages. In some of my hubs I have had comments disagreeing with my explanations or usage. This is absolutely fine; I just love the dialogue. I'm sorry if I didn't settle the disagreement in the original email, but I hope I was able to shed a bit of light on the subject. (And educate a few of you on what a split infinitive actually is.;)) Please feel free to use the comment box if you want to leave your two cents.

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What do you think? 26 comments

4 years ago

Wow... I never realised there was such heated debate in respect of this matter... Personally, I agree with a previous post that the most important thing is that your point is understood by your audience. However, my overriding thought interesting though the subject is, is that you people have too much time on your hands. Speaking for myself, I do have too much time on my hands.....hence this post! Thanks for reading


Allons-y 5 years ago

Thank you for clearing up the confusion for me! I had wondered about split infinitives for a long time. However, I also noticed that, under the experts section, there should not be a comma after _although_ in "Although, the second sentence is the split infinitive, it is the most unambiguous . . ." _Although_ is used as a subordinate conjunction, not an interjection, and the sentence should be "Although the second sentence is the split infinitive, it is the most unambiguous . . ."


Ron 5 years ago

Split infinitive, as a rule, is a red herring. The purpose of writing anything is for the reader to understand exactly what you mean. This means putting the adverb, and any other words, in the correct order so as to ensure no ambiguity. Therefore if the only way to achieve this is to use the split infinitive, that must be the correct thing to do as any other arrangement of the words would be either ambiguous, or misleading. It's not a case of should I/shouldn't I use the split infinitive; it's does my word arrangement accurately represent that which I want the reader to understand.


Emilia 5 years ago

How about the negation of a verb? I am bothered by "I told him to not go there, boldly or otherwise." It sounds much better to to say "I told him not to go there, boldly or otherwise."


David S 5 years ago

Just a note on why "To boldly go ..." has more impact than the phrase "To go boldly ..." - The former phrasing more closely follows the rule of poetic meter:

To BOLD-ly GO where NO MAN has GONE be-FORE

This phrase is in iambic pentameter (five iambs - a short followed by long syllable), with a single exception. The latter phrasing would result in two exceptions - "To GO BOLD-ly where NO MAN has GONE be-FORE" - thereby reducing its poetic impact.

DS


Pye 5 years ago

Split infinitives rule is ridiculous and based on Latin rules. You really have to think about whether these things actually make any sense. ;-)

http://oxforddictionaries.com/page/grammartipsplit...

^

Oxford, my best friend.


kjudd66 profile image

kjudd66 6 years ago

These are very useful. I have begun to post them to my Facebook page, to the continued enlightenment/indifference of my FB friends.


Wayne Tilden profile image

Wayne Tilden 6 years ago from Roseville, California

I had hoped truly that this hub would set it all finally straight. I guess not. I seem to not understand what I had already thought I had grasped. Nevertheless, I do often find myself breaking this, and other, rules of grammar. But only ocasionally and for good reasons.

Amen [so be it]


Mark Jenner profile image

Mark Jenner 6 years ago

Thanks - I write reports for a living for use in court and counsel has just criticised my use of the split infinitive - type the words into google and I got the answer here - nicely put! I will remove my si as counsel is a bit old fashioned.


fail 6 years ago

ummm... so you are writing a column on grammar and you used "weary" (This organization advises a writer to be weary of using split infinitives unless it decreases ambiguity) in the place of wary. Unless you are advising us to be tired of using split infinitives you kind of blew it.


Sal 6 years ago

I just came across this in my wanderings. Robin, this is a great service you have done. Keep up the good work!


Izzy Anne profile image

Izzy Anne 6 years ago

Good answer. I am doomed to notice more and more split infinitives on the BBC. I wish I had never learnt that rule.


Adam 6 years ago

To thoroughly exploit the subtleties of English grammar and usage, one must be convinced of the consistent disagreement of grammarians.


Beth 8 years ago

"This organization advises a writer to be weary of using split infinitives ..." We do get weary of the misuse of English words. I do believe the advice here would be to be wary.


Jon 9 years ago

Regarding the section above titled "What I think...."

I can only hope it was just a typo that you used four dots rather than three? ;-)


Robin profile image

Robin 9 years ago from San Francisco Author

Evan,

Yes, English is Germanic in grammar; however, 60% of our language is rooted in Latin.  The split infinitive falls into the category of a Latin rule.  Thanks for the comment.


Evan 9 years ago

English is not based in Latin, it is germanic.

Many Latin words have been added because, in my opinion, of either a failure of nerve or snob value.


Robin profile image

Robin 10 years ago from San Francisco Author

Ha! I love it, Wajay.


wajay_47 10 years ago

Great hub, Robin. Not an easy subject to explain, I'm sure. I am definitely guilty of using them! I figure that if fifty percent of grammarians use them and fifty percent don't, then the worst case scenario is that I'm half right. Thanks.


Robin profile image

Robin 10 years ago from San Francisco Author

Ha! I probably tricked you with the title. I agree with you completely. I saw your hub, I'll link to it on my hub if my readers are interested in more information. Thanks!


StuartJ profile image

StuartJ 10 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

Oh dear, I thought this was one I might beat you to... I have an unpublished hub on the split infinitive. My approach is that this is a non-rule -- a myth or superstition. The rule that should be followed is to simply put the adverb where it makes for the most clarity. If that means splitting the infinitive, split it.

It is true that some split infinitives are ugly and awkward, like the one in the hub: "To gracefully dance". But most literate native speakers wouldn't write it that way, anyway, irrespective of whether they knew it was a split infinitive. I think native speakers could simply forget about the "rule" and just follow just their instincts about where to put the adverb.


Robin profile image

Robin 10 years ago from San Francisco Author

Sorry! I appreciate the readership, even if it's a painful read. LOL ;)


Drax profile image

Drax 10 years ago from NYC....

yes Robin you continue to mercilessly punish us :-)


George 10 years ago

I'm glad that you did the split infinitives. Now, your audience knows about them, and that to break the rule would be advisable only for increased clarity.


Robin profile image

Robin 10 years ago from San Francisco Author

Ha!! You're the son of an English teacher, so you should have no problems. Plus, I'm not judging. ;)


jamestedmondson profile image

jamestedmondson 10 years ago from San Francisco

As the biggest grammar nerd on Hubpages (or possibly the world), are you aware of the pressure you put on your readers to clearly write a grammatically correct comment?

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