I have a confession to make: I didn’t know about the controversy surrounding split infinitives until relatively recently. The term “infinitive” wasn’t new—I studied Spanish for a long time in grade school and am well-acquainted with the infinitivo compared to conjugated verbs. Rather, the first time I heard about a split infinitive, it was something along the lines of, “Hey, that rule prohibiting split infinitives is bogus.” To which I responded, “What rule where now?” Your grammar expert, ladies and gentlemen.
What’s an infinitive and how do I split it?
If you also studied Spanish or a number of other languages, you might, like me, think of the infinitive as the unconjugated form of a verb. (Or maybe you’re a good English speaker and you just remember it from your regular English classes. I moved around a lot as an army brat, and I seemed to always just miss the Schoolhouse Rock unit, so I didn’t fully grasp most grammar building blocks until embarrassingly late. Conjunction Junction? Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here? Sorry, can’t sing along.)
The infinitive is simply the dictionary form of the verb—its base, with no –s, –ed, or –ing business. If you want more explanation, here’s a simple one, and here’s a slightly more complex one with links for further reading. For our purposes in discussing split infinitives, we’re going to look at what’s commonly thought of as the infinitive construction: to plus the verb.
The urge to do the hustle was overwhelming.
I need to travel more so I can rub it in my Instagram followers’ faces.
And of course, maybe the most famous English example of all:
To be, or not to be, that is the question.
So there’s the infinitive. But how does one commit that most egregious sin, that most damnable offense of splitting the infinitive? How does one shock the very core of civility and spit in the faces of decent, hard-working English speakers? Such a horrible, malicious person, a candy-stealing, granny-slapping miscreant, would stick a modifier in between the to and the base:
To truly make a statement, yodel.
Sally tried to gradually introduce yodeling into her workplace repartee.
I don’t want to always steal the show with my yodeling, but you can’t stop a star.
According to lots of olde fashionnede sources, splitting an infinitive is very, very bad. You might’ve even been taught to never do (heh) this in school. I’m not going to link to any such sources, because there are a lot of them, and because I’m lazy, and because, as we are about to see, they are wrong.
Whence the haters?
Interestingly, the mandate against the split infinitive is at once outdated and relatively recent.
It’s outdated because almost all modern language authorities agree that splitting an infinitive to avoid ambiguity is perfectly fine. After all, it’s already split into two words. Nowadays, those who insist on calling out and condemning split infinitives risk appearing out of touch and stuffy—reading their Strunk & White aloud from their fainting couch in between samples of snuff and sherry to the ice delivery man as he brings the horse and buggy ’round to deposit their weekly block in the cellar icebox.
Sorry, got carried away there. Also, most of those references are probably inaccurate. Sorry again, I’m a lazy scene-setter.
At the same time, the no-split-infinitives mandate is relatively recent because examples of split infinitives in writing go all the way back to the fourteenth century. The practice was not common by any means (Shakespeare used only one split infinitive, in sonnet 142), but it happened nonetheless. That’s a pretty long precedent.
The first time anyone seems to have a problem with splitting infinitives is 1834. In that year, two people suddenly popped up pushing the so-called rule: John Comly in English Grammar: Made Easy to the Teacher and Pupil, and an anonymous contributor signed only “P” in The New-England Magazine. Comly didn’t give a reason—he just said Them’s the rules and moved on—while P simply cited common sense and common practice. Nobody does it and it’s ugly and on Wednesdays we wear pink and you can’t sit with us.
Conspiracy theory: Comly and P were the same person. And that person was intent on destroying English-speaking society from the inside out.
Prove me wrong. Wait, don’t, I am undoubtedly wrong. … OR AM I.
Besides just “someone didn’t like it that day so they decided it was a rule,” aka how most supposed rules in the English language came to be, there are a few other theories about the origin of the split infinitive embargo. The most common one is based on what the American Heritage Dictionary calls “a false analogy with Latin.” Latin infinitives cannot be split—the single word amare means “to love.” In good ol’ England, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers hoped the British Empire could mimic the greatness of the Roman Empire, and so they decided that English infinitives should also never be split.
Some folks dispute this origin story. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say with certainty, but it’s worth knowing, I suppose.
Historical debates aside, these days the language powers that be agree that splitting infinitives is just fine—in fact, it can even be necessary. For example, sometimes moving the adverb to avoid a split infinitive makes for gibberish:
✓ We expect the number of Segway accidents to more than double next year.
✓ You’re going to all but explode at my Thanksgiving buffet.
✓ Cindy doesn’t allow her cat to so much as burp without scheduling a vet appointment.
✘ We expect the number of Segway accidents more than to double next year.
✘ You’re going all but to explode at my Thanksgiving buffet.
✘ Cindy doesn’t allow her cat to burp so much as without scheduling a vet appointment.
In addition, sometimes moving the adverb changes the meaning or produces ambiguity:
We’ve promised to only smile and nod when Don starts talking about his fantasy curling league.
If you move “only” after the verb, it suggests we will not smile and nod at all unless Don starts talking about fantasy curling. If you move it before the infinitive, it appears to modify “promised” and shifts the focus of the sentence. So if you’re trying to say that when Don talks curling, you’ll just smile and nod, then it’s best to leave that modifier right where it is, all cozy inside the infinitive.
After all, where would Star Trek be if they decided not “to boldly go where no man has gone before”? And don’t forget how President Obama had to take the oath of office over again in 2009 after Justice Roberts suddenly decided to revise the constitution to avoid saying, “I solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States.”
Folks, it’s fine. Boldly go wherever you want, and don’t let the self-proclaimed grammar police get you down.