Is it really okay to intentionally split an infinitive? That all depends on how you feel after reading the previous sentence.
But I do remember that my middle school English teacher was adamant about not using split infinitives.
Back in those days, I wanted an A more than a serious debate. Now that I’m an adult, I’m going back over the rules of the infinitive and coming to my own conclusion.
What on Earth is an Infinitive?
Good question. You’re probably using infinitives often when you write and speak but don’t even know it.
Think of an infinitive as the simplest form of a verb, such as “to be” or “to go.”
Remind anyone of learning a new language?
Even in English, we conjugate our verbs. That means you change the form of the verb to match the subject and the tense. So an infinitive is the verb before the conjugating.
I’ll give you an example:
Conjugated: I jog, you jog, she jogs, he jogs, we jog, they jog
Unlike a lot of languages, infinitives in English is paired as two words: “to” and [verb]. When you drop that “to,” that’s what grammarians call a bare infinitive.
So a Split Infinitive Is…
When you split the bill with your friend at a restaurant, the server brings two checks broken evenly in half or by what you or your friend ordered. Either way, it’s two parts of the whole separated from the total.
That’s how a split infinitive works.
A split infinitive is when a modifier—usually an adverb—squeezes between “to” and [verb], thus breaking up the original infinitive.
I’ll explain with examples.
Infinitive: to jog
Sentence Using Infinitive: She plans to jog to the store.
Sentence Using a Split Infinitive: She plans to briskly jog to the store.
The most famous example of a split infinitive comes straight from Star Trek: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
If a split infinitive appears in a favorite line from pop culture, surely it’s okay to use split infinitives. Right?
Well, that’s been a heated discussion for some time.
A Short History About the Split Infinitives Debate
Even though we were speaking and writing with split infinitives for centuries, the debate didn’t start until the 19th century. The most notable rant comes from Henry Alford, once the Dean of Canterbury, who in 1864 stated in his book A Plea for the Queen’s English:
“A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, “to scientifically illustrate.” But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And when we have already a choice between two forms of expression, “scientifically to illustrate,” and “to illustrate scientifically,” there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.”
Look up many grammar books from much of the 20th century and you’ll find many scolding lectures on splitting infinitives.
This is confusing to the English student who finds great authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Daniel Defoe and Thomas Cromwell who unapologetically split infinitives in their great works without any dispute from their readers.
When Splitting Infinitives is Grammatically Unsound
There’s one instance when I think Mr. Alford makes a good point about not splitting infinitives. I’m actually surprised he didn’t include this case into his argument:
Splitting an Infinitive with Multiple Modifiers
I get that adverbs can help intensive the meaning of a sentence. But shoving three or four adverbs between “to” and [verb] can be quite excessive.
Here’s my point: James is going to meticulously, gradually and critically wash the inside of his car.
Now the sentence is clunky and confusing. By the time you get to the word “wash,” you already forget who’s doing the washing.
Let’s rewrite the sentence: James is going to wash the inside of his car meticulously, gradually and critically.
Rule: Stick to one modifier when splitting infinitives.
Should You Split an Infinitive?
As long as it doesn’t hinder the comprehension of a sentence, I say split away!
Just use one word to split the infinitive, of course.
The meaning of a sentence can often be enhanced by splitting an infinitive instead of waiting to place that adverb at the end of the sentence. Then again, sometimes saving that adverb as the sentence’s last word sounds more eloquent.
As long as it’s grammatically sound, use your best judgment. But that’s a decision best left to your inner editor.