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Split infinitives July 13, 2006

Posted by dr. gonzo in Writing.

This is something I have had a beef with for a long time.

The grammar police will tell you that split infinitives are to be completely avoided. While this may be true in some instances, a split infinitive is not necessarily an error. Writers use them all the time to write with more expressiveness and eloquence.

Indeed, there is some controversy regarding the use of split infinitives in English.

In Romantic languages, especially, the infinitive form of many verbs include “to” as part of the verb. In Spanish: ir=to go, tener=to have, et cetera.

English is not a Romantic language, it is Germanic, regardless English has evolved over many years and is no longer entirely a Germanic language. Therefore, this argument is not really a valid one any longer.

The best argument for split infinitives comes when they are used to construct sentences that would sound absolutely silly or imply differing meaning if they were not used.

An example from R.L. Trask’s Mind the Gaffe:

She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

Here the infinitive is split, the sentence implies that she decided to get rid of the teddy bears in a gradual manner.

She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

Not split. The implication here is the decision was gradual.

She decided to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected gradually.

Not split. This implies that she collected the teddy bears gradually.

She decided to get gradually rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

Not split. This sounds like it was written by a four-year-old.

She decided to get rid gradually of the teddy bears she had collected.

Not split. Perhaps even worse English than the preceding sentence.

Obviously, split infinitives have their place. They are not all wrong. Of course, unless you know the expectations of your reader it is probably a good idea to generally avoid them if you are, say, writing a dissertation for a 400 level history course.

And, of course, “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” has a much better ring to it than “to go boldly where no man has gone before.”


1. bloglily - July 13, 2006

Agreed. My take on this is that you first learn the rules. And then you may decide for yourself how language can best be used to express what you want to say. But I do think you have to do the first before you branch out and do the second.

2. dr. gonzo - July 13, 2006

I concur.

3. Cas Stavert - July 13, 2006

No split infinitives is a rule created by 19th century grammarians ignorant of the basic structures of English but in love with Latin, or so I was taught when I studied Linguistics at uni.

4. sputnki - July 13, 2006

Me just write as spirit moves me. No care rules!



5. bloglily - July 14, 2006

Doug’s post reminds me that for a while Yoda-speak was very popular in our house. I mean, popular in our house was yoda-speak. And I’m all for writing that’s moved by the spirit!

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