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date: 21 August 2019

split infinitive

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage
Jeremy ButterfieldJeremy Butterfield

split infinitive. 

Few other grammatical issues have become such a cultural meme. As Fowler put it: ‘The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; (5) those who know and distinguish’. The aim here is to convert to the fifth category anyone included in the first four.

1 Definition.

The base form of an infinitive is shown in to love, with the verbal parts preceded by the particle to. When these two elements are ‘split’ by an adverb or adverbial phrase (e.g. to madly love, to really and truly love) or other word or words the construction is called a split infinitive. In Latin such a construction was impossible because infinitives (amāre ‘to love’, crescere ‘to grow’) were indivisible and not preceded by a grammatical particle. The type My mother taught me to be always prepared is not a split infinitive. It would become one only if phrased as My mother taught me to always be prepared. Another type sometimes falsely taken to be a split infinitive is that containing to + insertion + verb in -ing. e.g. I mean it’s not as if I’m going to be actually risking my life—K. Amis, 1988.

2 A brief history.

  1. (a) The standard work on the history of English syntax, F. Th. Visser’s An Historical Syntax of the English Language (4 vols., 1963–73), states that the earliest examples of split infinitives date from the 13c.; but the construction was not widely used between the 13c. and the 15c. (for example, there are only two examples in Chaucer).

  2. (b) Typical historical examples: (i) (adverb between to and the infinitive; note that forto, for to frequently = to in Middle English) What movede the pape of Rome to thus accepte mennes persones—Wyclif, c.1380; To enserche sciences, and to perfitly knowe alle manere of Naturals þinges—Secreta Secretorum, c.1400; it longiþ forto not oonly bigynne …but it longiþ [etc.]—R. Pecock, c.1443; (ii) (a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase inserted) heo cleopode him to alle his wise for to him reade—Layamon, c.1250; being moche redier forto suche writings lette and distroie þan [etc.]—Pecock, c.1445; (iii) (two or more words between to and its infinitive) A kyng owith not to ouer oft haunte the company of his sugetis—Prose version of Secreta Secretorum, c.1425; forto iustli and vertuoseli do a dede contrari to goddis comaundement—Pecock, c.1449.

  3. (c) Visser goes on to say that ‘From about the beginning of the sixteenth century to about the last decades of the eighteenth century the use of the split infinitive seems to have been as it were tabooed in the written language.’ Nevertheless he cites four examples from the 16c. Burchfield had no difficulty in finding several examples of the avoidance of split infinitives in three 16c. lives of Sir Thomas More (e.g. I am ready obediently to conforme my self to his graces commandements—Roper, ?1557). There were no split infinitives in any of these three Lives.

  4. (d) The split infinitive seems to have come back into favour at the end of the 18c.: e.g. I know not how I should be able to absolutely forbid him my sight—F. Burney, 1778; To sit on rocks to muse o’er flood and fell, To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene—Byron, 1812; She wants to honestly and legally marry that man—Hardy, 1895.

3 Current attitudes.

There can be no doubt that journalists in parts of the national press, many respected writers, and average people are reluctant to split infinitives in writing. Thus in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988): He was never ashamed publicly to bear witness. When the late Bernard Levin, wrote in the Times (24 Oct. 1991) he [a former political prisoner] was in Vilnius to formally close down the headquarters of the Lithuanian KGB, the use called for special comment in the Diary pages two days later. In a leading article in the 18 May 1992 issue of The Times it was stated that ‘The most diligent search can find no modern grammarian to pedantically, to dogmatically, to invariably condemn a split infinitive.’ These light-hearted comments highlighted the irrational nervousness that many people feel: they imagine that, by splitting an infinitive, they are breaking a terrible taboo. A quarter of a century on, depending on the publication concerned, many modern-day editors and subs are more relaxed; the Economist Style Guide neatly sums up this approach ‘Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.’ Stephen Pinker (1994) expresses a modern linguistic and commonsensical approach: ‘forcing modern speakers of English…not to split an infinitive because it isn’t done in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern residents of England to wear laurels and togas’. However, the millions of people who use the grammar checker in Word will still find split infinitives flagged for their attention.

4 Avoiding the split infinitive.

  1. (a) First, much evidence points towards the reality of the feeling that it is ‘wrong’ to split infinitives. Examples showing an adverb placed immediately before the particle to are not uncommon: e.g. I had no wish actually to read it—C. Rumens, 1987; I want briefly to examine three elements of the pictureSenses of Cinema, 2002. Less commonly the adverb comes after the verb: e.g. Party leaders have simply refused to attempt seriously to come to terms with the new situation—Parl. Aff., 1986.

  2. (b) On the other hand, avoiding split infinitives can lead to results that are unnatural, stylistically poor, ambiguous, or misleading: Rhys considers it unwise to attempt radically to alter taxes on large cars, as proposed by LabourAutocar and Motor, 1990; It should be the Government’s task quietly to advocate such a comprehensive strategy with our American alliesTimes, 1998; I know too that repeatedly to drink and drive is a profound and serious matterIndependent, 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, quietly and advocate; are similarly affected; 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). It is arguable in these cases that the adverb, or adverb phrase, is more strongly associated with the verb than is the purely functional particle to.

In some cases, the adverb even becomes attached to the wrong verb: It was in Paris that the wartime alliance began finally to break up—television broadcast, 1998. The intended meaning is that the process of breaking up entered its final phase, not, as suggested by the order shown, that it finally began.

5 Unproblematic split infinitives.

  1. (a) Examples abound of most of the categories of split infinitives that Visser found in works of earlier centuries. As can quickly be seen, to recast any of the following to avoid splitting would often make them stilted and pedantic, even the last one, where four words intervene between to and its verb: David…questing her attention, allowed one eyelid to minimally fall—A. Brookner, 1984 (UK); it led Cheshires to finally abandon publishing fiction at all—B. Oakley, 1985 (Aust.); For your safety and comfort we do ask you to please stay in your seats—British Airways flight attendant, 1986; Everything he had written seemed to just deliberately and maliciously draw attention to the fact that [etc.]—B. Elton, 1991.

  2. (b) The commonest type is that in which an adverb, especially intensifying adverbs such as actually, even, ever, further, just, quite, really, utterly, is inserted between to and the infinitive: e.g. The goal is to further exclude Arafat—US News & World Rep., 1986; Spring, the season she had been able to utterly ignore—J. Urquhart, 1986 (Canad.). Occasionally, for stylistic reasons or other special effects, adverbial phrases are inserted, not just a single adverb: e.g. To suddenly, after all these years, fire them—P. Carey, 1982 (Aust.); a willingness to not always, in every circumstance, think the very best of us—P. Roth, 1987.

  3. (c) The negative adverbs never and not are often inserted in AmE, less commonly in BrE: e.g. a perfect morning to not read ‘Moby Dick’—New Yorker, 1986; Many professional players hope to never play there again—American Way, 1987; The only unforgivable sin is to not show up—G. Keillor, 1991.

6 Questionable split infinitives.

The only, not very compelling, argument against split infinitives is when they jar for some reason. This argument shifts the issue from grammar to style, but is only 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—N. 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—P. 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 studentsIndependent, 2006. This is one that truly jars stylistically (not to mention historically) because of the long adverb: better to put the adverb at the end of the phrase: not possible to type lecture notes for students affordably.

7 Recommendation.,

The prejudice against the split infinitive, though relatively recent in the broader context of the history of English, has a considerable weight of opinion behind it. The split infinitive is, therefore, best avoided, especially when it is stylistically awkward. But it is not a major error nor a grammatical blunder; it is acceptable, even necessary, when considerations of rhythm and clarity require it.