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A split infinitive is an English-language grammatical construction in which a word or phrase, usually an adverb or adverbial phrase, comes between the marker to and the bare infinitive (uninflected) form of a verb.
For example, a split infinitive occurs in the opening sequence of the Star Trek television series: to boldly go where no man has gone before. Here, the adverb "boldly" splits the full infinitive "to go". More rarely, the term compound split infinitive is used to describe situations in which the infinitive is split by more than one word: The population is expected to more than double in the next ten years.
As the split infinitive became more common in the 19th century, some grammatical authorities sought to introduce a prescriptive rule against it. The construction is still the subject of disagreement among native English speakers as to whether it is grammatically correct or good style: "No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the 19c [19th century]: raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned". However, most modern English usage guides have dropped the objection to the split infinitive.
In Old English, infinitives were single words ending in -n or -an (compare modern Dutch and German -n, -en). Gerunds were formed using "to" followed by a verbal noun in the dative case, which ended in -anne or -enne (e.g. tō cumenne = "coming, to come"). In Middle English, the bare infinitive and the gerund coalesced into the same form ending in -(e)n (e.g. comen "come"; to comen "to come"). The "to" infinitive was not split in Old or Early Middle English.
This may be a poetic inversion for the sake of meter, and therefore says little about whether Layamon would have felt the construction to be syntactically natural. However, no such reservation applies to the following prose example from John Wycliffe (14th century), who was fond of splitting infinitives:
After its rise in Middle English, the construction became rare in the 15th and 16th centuries. William Shakespeare used only one, which appears to be a syntactical inversion for the sake of rhyme:
Edmund Spenser, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and the King James Version of the Bible used none, and they are very rare in the writing of Samuel Johnson. John Donne used them several times, though, and Samuel Pepys also used at least one. No reason for the near disappearance of the split infinitive is known; in particular, no prohibition is recorded.
Split infinitives reappeared in the 18th century and became more common in the 19th. Daniel Defoe, Benjamin Franklin, William Wordsworth, Abraham Lincoln, George Eliot, Henry James, and Willa Cather are among the writers who used them. Examples in the poems of Robert Burns attest its presence also in 18th century Scots:
However, it was especially in colloquial use that the construction experienced a veritable boom. Today, according to the American Heritage Book of English Usage, "people split infinitives all the time without giving it a thought". In corpora of contemporary spoken English, some adverbs such as always and completely appear more often in the split position than the unsplit.
Although it is difficult to say why the construction developed in Middle English, or why it revived so powerfully in Modern English, a number of theories have been postulated.
Traditional grammarians have suggested that the construction appeared because people frequently place adverbs before finite verbs. George Curme writes: "If the adverb should immediately precede the finite verb, we feel that it should immediately precede also the infinitive…" Thus if one says:
one may, by analogy, wish to say:
This is supported by the fact that split infinitives are often used as echoes, as in the following exchange, in which the riposte parodies the slightly odd collocation in the original sentence:
Here is an example of an adverb being transferred into split infinitive position from a parallel position in a different construction.
In the modern language, splitting usually involves a single adverb coming between the verb and its marker. Very frequently, this is an emphatic adverb, for example:
Sometimes it is a negation, as in the self-referential joke:
However, in modern colloquial English almost any adverb may be found in this syntactic position, especially when the adverb and the verb form a close syntactic unit (really-pull, not-split).
Compound split infinitives, splitting by more than one word, usually involve a pair of adverbs or a multi-word adverbial:
Examples of non-adverbial elements participating in the split-infinitive construction seem rarer in Modern English than in Middle English. The pronoun all commonly appears in this position:
and may even be combined with an adverb:
This is an extension of the subject pronoun (you all). However an object pronoun, as in the Layamon example above, would be unusual in modern English, perhaps because this might cause a listener to misunderstand the to as a preposition:
Other parts of speech would be very unusual in this position. However, in verse, poetic inversion for the sake of meter or of bringing a rhyme word to the end of a line often results in abnormal syntax, as with Shakespeare's split infinitive (to pitied be, cited above), in fact an inverted passive construction in which the infinitive is split by a past participle. Presumably, this would not have occurred in a prose text by the same author.
It was not until the very end of the 19th century that terminology emerged to describe the construction. According to the main etymological dictionaries, the earliest use of the term split infinitive on record dates from 1897, with infinitive-splitting and infinitive-splitter following in 1926 and 1927 respectively. The now rare cleft infinitive is slightly older, attested from 1893. The term compound split infinitive is not found in these dictionaries and appears to be very recent.
This terminology implies analysing the full infinitive as a two-word infinitive, which not all grammarians accept. As one who used "infinitive" to mean the single-word verb, Otto Jespersen challenged the epithet: "'To' is no more an essential part of an infinitive than the definite article is an essential part of a nominative, and no one would think of calling 'the good man' a 'split nominative'." However, no alternative terminology has been proposed.
Although it is sometimes reported that a prohibition on split infinitives goes back to Renaissance times, and frequently the 18th century scholar Robert Lowth is cited as the originator of the prescriptive rule, such a rule is not to be found in Lowth's writing and is not known to appear in any other text prior to the mid-19th century.
Possibly the earliest comment against split infinitives was by an anonymous American in 1834:
I am not conscious, that any rule has been heretofore given in relation to this point [...] The practice, however, of not separating the particle from its verb, is so general and uniform among good authors, and the exceptions are so rare, that the rule which I am about to propose will, I believe, prove to be as accurate as most rules, and may be found beneficial to inexperienced writers. It is this :—The particle, TO, which comes before the verb in the infinitive mode, must not be separated from it by the intervention of an adverb or any other word or phrase; but the adverb should immediately precede the particle, or immediately follow the verb.
In 1840, Richard Taylor also condemned split infinitives as a "disagreeable affectation", and in 1859, Solomon Barrett, Jr., called them "a common fault". However, the issue seems not to have attracted wider public attention until Henry Alford addressed it in his Plea for the Queen's English in 1864:
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.
Others quickly followed, among them Bache, 1869 ("The to of the infinitive mood is inseparable from the verb"); William B. Hodgson, 1889; and Raub, 1897 ("The sign to must not be separated from the remaining part of the infinitive by an intervening word").
Even as these authorities were condemning the split infinitive, others were endorsing it: Brown, 1851 (saying some grammarians had criticized it and it was less elegant than other adverb placements but sometimes clearer); Hall, 1882; Onions, 1904; Jespersen, 1905; and Fowler and Fowler, 1906. Despite the defence by some grammarians, by the beginning of the 20th century the prohibition was firmly established in the press and popular belief. In the 1907 edition of The King's English, the Fowler brothers wrote:
In large parts of the school system, the construction was opposed with ruthless vigour. A correspondent to the BBC on a programme about English grammar in 1983 remarked:
As a result, the debate took on a degree of passion which the bare facts of the matter never warranted. There was frequent skirmishing between the splitters and anti-splitters until the 1960s. George Bernard Shaw wrote letters to newspapers supporting writers who used the split infinitive, and Raymond Chandler complained to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly about a proofreader who changed Chandler's split infinitives:
Post-1960 authorities show a strong tendency to accept the split infinitive. Follett, in Modern American Usage (1966) writes: "The split infinitive has its place in good composition. It should be used when it is expressive and well led up to." Fowler (Gower's revised second edition, 1983) offers the following example of the consequences of refusal to split infinitives: "The greatest difficulty about assessing the economic achievements of the Soviet Union is that its spokesmen try absurdly to exaggerate them; in consequence the visitor may tend badly to underrate them" (italics added). This question results: "Has dread of the split infinitive led the writer to attach the adverbs ['absurdly' and 'badly'] to the wrong verbs, and would he not have done better to boldly split both infinitives, since he cannot put the adverbs after them without spoiling his rhythm" (italics added)? Bernstein (1985) argues that, although infinitives should not always be split, they should be split where doing so improves the sentence: "The natural position for a modifier is before the word it modifies. Thus the natural position for an adverb modifying an infinitive should be just . . . after the to" (italics added). Bernstein continues: "Curme's contention that the split infinitive is often an improvement . . . cannot be disputed." Heffernan and Lincoln, in their modern English composition textbook, agree with the above authors. Some sentences, they write, "are weakened by . . . cumbersome splitting," but in other sentences "an infinitive may be split by a one-word modifier that would be awkward in any other position."
Objections to the split infinitive fall into three categories, of which only the first is accorded any credence by linguists.
Like most linguistic prescription, disapproval of the split infinitive was originally based on the descriptive observation that it was not in fact a feature of the prestige form of English which those proscribing it wished to champion. This is made explicit in the anonymous 1834 text, the first known statement of the position, and in Alford's objection in 1864, the first truly influential objection to the construction, both cited above. Still today, many English speakers avoid split infinitives not because they follow a prescriptive rule, but simply because it was not part of the language that they learned as children. Thus the descriptivist objection involves a person whose idiolect does not have the construction advising against its use on the grounds that it is not the norm. In principle this is a respectable position, but as the construction grows in popularity, its viability is progressively reduced.
Many of those who avoid split infinitives differentiate according to type and register. Infinitives split by multi-word phrases ("compound split infinitives") and those split by pronouns are demonstrably less usual than the straightforward example of an infinitive split by an adverb. Likewise, split infinitives are far more common in speech than in, say, academic writing. Thus, while an outright rejection of the split infinitive is no longer sustainable on descriptive grounds (as it was in 1834), the advice to avoid it in formal settings, and to avoid some types in particular, remains a tenable position. The prescriptive rule of thumb draws on the descriptive observation that certain split infinitives are not usual in certain situations. For examples of modern linguists using such arguments, see the current views section below.
A second argument is summed up by Alford's statement "It seems to me that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb".
The to in the infinitive construction, which is found throughout the Germanic languages, is originally a preposition before the dative of a verbal noun, but in the modern languages it is widely regarded as a particle which serves as a marker of the infinitive. In German, this marker (zu) sometimes precedes the infinitive, but is not regarded as part of it. In English, on the other hand, it is traditional to speak of the "bare infinitive" without to and the "full infinitive" with it, and to conceive of to as part of the full infinitive. (In the sentence "I made my daughter clean her room," clean is a bare infinitive; in "She decided to clean her room", to clean is a full infinitive.) Possibly this is because the absence of an inflected infinitive form made it useful to include the particle in the citation form of the verb, and in some nominal constructions in which other Germanic languages would omit it (e.g. to know her is to love her). The concept of a two-word infinitive can reinforce an intuitive sense that the two words belong together. For instance, the rhetorician John Duncan Quackenbos said, "To have is as much one thing, and as inseparable by modifiers, as the original form habban, or the Latin habere." The usage writer John Opdycke based a similar argument on the closest French, German, and Latin translations.
The two-part infinitive is disputed, however, and some linguists would say that the infinitive in English is also a single-word verb form, which may or may not be preceded by the particle to. Some modern generative analysts classify to as a "peculiar" auxiliary verb; other analysts, as the infinitival subordinator. Moreover, even when the concept of the full infinitive is accepted, it does not necessarily follow that any two words that belong together grammatically need be adjacent to each other. They usually are, but counter-examples are easily found, such as an adverb splitting a two-word finite verb ("will not do", "has not done").
A frequently discussed argument states that the split-infinitive prohibition is based on Latin. An infinitive in Latin is never used with a marker equivalent to English to, and thus there is no parallel there for the construction. The claim that those who dislike split infinitives are applying rules of Latin grammar to English is asserted in many references that accept the split infinitive. One example is in the American Heritage Book of English Usage: "The only rationale for condemning the construction is based on a false analogy with Latin." In more detail, the usage author Marilyn Moriarty states:
The rule forbidding a split infinitive comes from the time when Latin was the universal language of the world. All scholarly, respectable writing was done in Latin. Scientists and scholars even took Latin names to show that they were learned. In Latin, infinitives appear as a single word. The rule which prohibits splitting an infinite [sic] shows deference to Latin and to the time when the rules which governed Latin grammar were applied to other languages.
The argument implies an adherence to the humanist idea of the greater purity of the classics, which particularly in Renaissance times led people to regard aspects of English that differed from Latin as inferior. However by the 19th century such views were no longer widespread; Moriarty is in error about the age of the prohibition. It has also been stated that an argument from Latin would be fallacious because "there is no precedent in these languages for condemning the split infinitive because in Greek and Latin (and all the other romance languages) the infinitive is a single word that is impossible to sever."
However, this is something of a straw man argument as very few proponents of the rule argue from Latin in any case. Certainly, it is clear that dislike of the split infinitive does not originate from Latin. As shown above, none of the prescriptivists who started the split-infinitive controversy in the 19th century mentioned Latin in connection with it. Occasionally teachers and bloggers can be found who do oppose the split infinitive with such an argument, but it is not found in any statements of the position from the 19th or early 20th century, when the prohibition developed. Of the writers cited here (and the many others consulted) who ascribe the split-infinitive prohibition to Latinism, none cite an authority who condemned the construction on that basis. According to Richard Bailey, the prohibition does not come from a comparison with Latin, and the belief that it does is “part of the folklore of linguistics.”
Present style and usage manuals deem simple split infinitives unobjectionable in many situations. For example, Curme's Grammar of the English Language (1931) says that not only is the split infinitive correct, but it "should be furthered rather than censured, for it makes for clearer expression". The Columbia Guide to Standard American English notes that the split infinitive "eliminates all possibility of ambiguity", in contrast to the "potential for confusion" in an unsplit construction. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says, "the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis." According to Mignon Fogarty, "today almost everyone agrees that it is OK to split infinitives".
Nevertheless, many teachers of English still admonish students against using split infinitives in writing. Because the prohibition has become so widely known, the Columbia Guide recommends that writers "follow the conservative path [of avoiding split infinitives when they are not necessary], especially when you're uncertain of your readers' expectations and sensitivities in this matter." Likewise, the Oxford Dictionaries do not regard the split infinitive as ungrammatical, but on balance consider it likely to produce a weak style and advise against its use for formal correspondence. R. W. Burchfield's revision of Fowler's Modern English Usage goes farther (quoting Burchfield's own 1981 book The Spoken Word): "Avoid splitting infinitives whenever possible, but do not suffer undue remorse if a split infinitive is unavoidable for the completion of a sentence already begun." Still more strongly, the style guide of The Economist says, "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."
As well as register, tolerance of split infinitives varies according to type. While most authorities accept split infinitives in general, it is not hard to construct an example which any native speaker would reject. Interestingly, Wycliff's Middle English compound split would, if transferred to modern English, be regarded by most people as un-English:
Attempts to define the boundaries of normality are controversial. In 1996, the usage panel of The American Heritage Book was evenly divided for and against such sentences as,
but more than three-quarters of the panel rejected
Here the problem appears to be the breaking up of the verbal phrase to be seeking a plan to relieve: a segment of the head verbal phrase is so far removed from the remainder that the listener or reader must expend greater effort to understand the sentence. By contrast, 87 percent of the panel deemed acceptable the multi-word adverbial in
not surprisingly perhaps, because here there is no other place to put the words more than without substantially recasting the sentence.
Splitting infinitives with negations remains an area of contention:
Even those who are generally tolerant of split infinitives may draw the line at these, and in modern British English their use is rare. This appears to be because the traditional idiom, placing the negation before the marker (I soon learned not to provoke her) or with verbs of desire, negating the finite verb (I don't want to see you anymore) remains easy and natural, and is still overwhelmingly the more common construction. Some argue that the two forms have different meanings, while others see a grammatical difference, but most speakers do not make use of such a distinction.
Writers who avoid splitting infinitives either place the splitting element elsewhere in the sentence (as noted in the 1834 proscription) or reformulate the sentence, perhaps rephrasing it without an infinitive and thus avoiding the issue. Considering that many English speakers throughout history have not known the construction, or have known it only passively, there can be no situation in which it is a necessary part of natural speech. However, a sentence with a split infinitive such as "to more than double" must be completely rewritten; it is ungrammatical to put the words "more than" anywhere else in the sentence. While split infinitives can be avoided, a writer must be careful not to produce an awkward or ambiguous sentence. Fowler (1926) stressed that, if a sentence is to be rewritten to remove a split infinitive, this must be done without compromising the language:
It is of no avail merely to fling oneself desperately out of temptation; one must so do it that no traces of the struggle remain; that is, sentences must be thoroughly remodelled instead of having a word lifted from its original place & dumped elsewhere:...
The sentence can be rewritten to maintain its meaning, however, by using a noun or a different grammatical aspect of the verb, or by eschewing the informal "get rid":
Fowler notes that the option of rewriting is always available but questions whether it is always worth the trouble.
"Are you kidding?" said the communications officer. "I wrote that as fast as I could type it. Probably a minute and a half. You just have to develop an ear for Navy prose, Willie. For instance, note that split infinitive in paragraph three. If you want a letter to sound official, split an infinitive. Use the word 'subject' very often. Repeat phrases as much as possible. See my beautiful reiteration of the phrase 'subject man.' Why, it's got the hypnotic insistence of a bass note in a Bach fugue."