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What is a Split Infinitive: Grammar Guide
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.