Let’s start by defining an infinitive. An infinitive is the present form of a verb usually preceded by the word “to.” For example, “to swim.” There are some cases where an infinitive can appear without the “to,” but I honestly don’t really understand that usage and find it irrelevant to our present discussion. I guess that means I’m not going to talk about it.
Anyway, you all know what infinitives are. Just add “to” to the front of your verb.
- to run
- to speak
- to sleep
- to be
- to have
A split infinitive is when you put a modifier between the “to” and the verb. One of the most widely criticized ever was the tagline to Star Trek, “to boldly go.”
Split infinitives have been decried as incorrect English since around 1800 or so, but in reality, they are perfectly normal, acceptable, and even useful. They began to be outlawed when grammarians started trying to organize rules for English. Since English is a conglomeration of so many languages, grammarians had a certain difficulty identifying and using existing rules. There was a dramatic difference between lower-class English and upper-class English as well, and most grammarians tried to please the more influential upper-class. In some cases, grammarians grabbed an arbitrary rule, applied it, and made it standard even if it didn’t make any sense simply because that is what the upper class did. In many ways, that follows the standard of consensus of the educated that we use today. All these factors affected the development of the rule.
Most believe that the split infinitive rule was borrowed from Latin and Latin-based languages such as Portuguese, French, and Italian. In these languages it is impossible to split an infinitive because the infinitive form of a verb is a single word. For example, the English infinitive “to sleep” in Portuguese is “dormir.” “To be” is “ser” or “estar.” As single word infinitives, you can’t very well split them, can you?
Besides being logically invalid, the split infinitive rule also doesn’t make much sense. For modifiers to be most accurate, they should be placed as close to the word being modified as possible. The split infinitive rule sometimes makes that difficult. For example:
- We expect to more than double our savings this year.
Imagine having to say that without splitting the infinitive….
- We expect more than to double our savings this year.
- We expect to double more than our savings this year.
Neither of those sentences makes any sense that even comes remotely close to the original meaning. In fact, the final sentence is so ambiguous that it is impossible to correctly identify what is really being doubled. It could mean that the speaker is going to double more things than savings this year. While less likely, it could also mean that they themselves expect to double more than their savings. All that confusion is caused by *not* splitting the infinitive.
Another good place to use a split infinitive is when you have multiple modifiers. For example:
- I expected him to completely, wholly, and entirely fail.
Let’s try to remove that split infinitive….
- I expected him completely, wholly, and entirely to fail.
- I expected him to fail completely, wholly, and entirely.
While each of those sentences does make sense, neither of them carries the same power and ease of reading as the first.
Another area of split infinitive problems is with negation. Most people who support split infinitives in general, absolutely refuse to split infinitives in negative sentences. For example, “I want to not see you” sounds awful. Most choose to negate the verb instead by saying, “I don’t want to see you.” Even though this sounds so much better and is considered standard, it actually carries a slightly different meaning than the original. In this case, moving the negative changes the speaker from “desiring to not see” to “not desiring to see.” Granted, that is a very slight change in meaning for most people, but nevertheless, it is not as accurate as splitting the infinitive.
Really, the best way to maintain the best accuracy of the original sentence without splitting the infinitive is to say, “I want to see you not,” but saying that will certainly raise some eyebrows, wouldn’t it?
What does it mean to me?
Great question. Some experts have labeled the split infinitive as the Mother of all Grammar wars. There are those that will suffer major strokes when they hear split infinitives, and there is a smaller group that will also suffer major strokes when they hear you avoid splitting an infinitive. Most people probably don’t really care, though it is one that I hear bandied about when someone is trying to display grammatical knowledge.
In speech, I really wouldn’t worry about it. In professional writing, I’d avoid it unless it seriously compromises the meaning of your sentence. It’s just not worth the headache. As for my soapbox, I really just wish it didn’t matter that much. The point of any communication is to communicate, and as long as that is successful, I really don’t have much of a problem with how it is done. So for those of you who do think it matters, I humbly invite you to boldly go or to go boldly into a new realm of possibility where the sun just might not stop spinning if someone says it wrong.
Honestly, life is much too short for it to really matter.