Split infinitive

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Linguistics

A split infinitive is an English-language grammatical construction in which a word or phrase, usually an adverb or adverbial phrase, occurs between the marker to and the bare infinitive (uninflected) form of a verb. One of the most famous split infinitives 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."

As the split infinitive became more popular 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. Fowler wrote in 1926, "No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism . . . . [R]aise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned." However, most experts on language now agree that the split infinitive is sometimes appropriate.

History of the construction

Middle English

In Old English, most infinitives were single words ending in -an (compare modern German -en), but about one fourth were "to" followed by a verbal noun in the dative case, which ended in -anne or -enne. In Middle English, the bare infinitive and the infinitive after "to" took on the same uninflected form. The "to" infinitive was not split in Old or Early Middle English. The first known example in English, in which a pronoun rather than an adverb splits the infinitive, is in Layamon's Brut (early 13th century):

and he cleopede him to; alle his wise cnihtes.
for to him reade;

(In Modern English, "And he called to him all his wise knights to advise him.") 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, this reservation does not apply to the following prose example from Wycliffe (14th century): For this was gret unkyndenesse, to this manere treten there brother. ("For this was great unkindness, to treat their brother in this manner.")

The split infinitive appeared after the Norman Conquest when English was borrowing widely from French. Other Germanic language such as German still do not permit an adverb to fall between an infinitive and its particle (preposition), but French and other Romance languages do. Compare modern German, French, and English:

Ich beschließe, etwas nicht zu tun.
I decide not to do something.
Je décide de ne pas faire quelque chose.
I decide to not do something.

Thus the English split infinitive ("I decide to not do something") may have arisen under the influence of French. However, grammarians of the Romance languages do not use the term "split infinitive" to describe the phenomenon, since the preposition is not considered a part of the infinitive form, and despite the surface-level similarity there are significant syntactical differences between the English and French constructions.

Modern English

After its rise in Middle English, the construction became rare in the 15th and 16th centuries. William Shakespeare used only one, and it is a special case as it is clearly a syntactical inversion for the sake of rhyme:

Root pity in thy heart, that when it grows
Thy pity may deserve to pitied be (Sonnet 142).

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. Now "people split infinitives all the time without giving it a thought". Grammarians have suggested that it reappeared because people frequently place adverbs before finite verbs, as in "She gradually got rid of her teddy bears" or "She will gradually get rid of her teddy bears" (the future tense in the latter example can be analysed as containing a bare infinitive), or in transformational-grammar terms from a re-analysis of the role of to.

History of the controversy

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". 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.

The first known use of the term split infinitive was in 1897.

Even as Alford and some other grammarians (Bache, 1869; William B. Hodgson, 1889; Raub, 1897) were condemning the split infinitive, others (Brown, 1851, lukewarmly; Hall, 1882; Onions, 1904; Jespersen, 1905; Fowler and Fowler, cited above) were endorsing it. 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:

"The 'split' infinitive has taken such hold upon the consciences of journalists that, instead of warning the novice against splitting his infinitives, we must warn him against the curious superstition that the splitting or not splitting makes the difference between a good and a bad writer."

A correspondent to the BBC on a programme about English grammar in 1983 remarked:

"One reason why the older generation feel so strongly about English grammar is that we were severely punished if we didn't obey the rules! One split infinitive, one whack; two split infinitives, two whacks; and so on."

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 his publisher about a proofreader who changed Chandler's split infinitives:

"Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have."

Chandler was not defending the correctness of the construction, but rather contrasting it to his "more or less literate syntax", and defending its use as deliberate "broken-down patois".

Principal objections to the split infinitive

The descriptivist objection

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.

Some of those who avoid split infinitives differentiate according to type and register. Clearly, "I decided to not go" is not nearly as awkward as "I decided to by bus on Wednesday go"; that is, it makes a big difference what kinds of adverbials are inserted, and the boundaries of normality are subjective. Here the rule seems to be the same as for adverbials before the bare infinitive; "I will by bus on Wednesday go" is also unidiomatic. As far as register is concerned, split infinitives are far more common in speech than in academic writing, and a sense of what makes proper formal style is subjective. Thus an attempt to avoid the construction need not be based entirely on prescriptivism; rather, a prescriptive rule of thumb may draw on the descriptive observation that certain split infinitives are not usual in certain situations.

The argument from the full infinitive

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 best regarded as a particle which serves as a marker of the infinitive. In German, this marker (zu) 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. If we work with the concept of a two-word infinitive, this can reinforce an intuitive sense that the two words belong together.

However the two-part infinitive is disputed, and some linguists would say of English too that the infinitive is a single-word verb form, which may or may not be preceded by the particle to. And even if we accept the concept of the full infinitive, it does not necessarily follow that two words which 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"). As one who used "infinitive" to mean the single-word verb, Otto Jespersen condemned the term "split infinitive": "'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'."

The argument from classical languages

It has been claimed that the dislike of the split infinitive is based on a comparison with classical languages. In Greek and Latin, it is impossible to split infinitives because these languages never use their infinitives together with a preposition/particle. Possibly some felt that as the construction is impossible in those languages, it was not the best English. The weakness of this argument, apart from the non sequitur of judging the syntax of one language by that of another, is that as Latin has no marker, it does not model either solution to the question of where to place one.

Many of those who accept splitting ascribe such an argument to their opponents. For example, the American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996) states: "The only rationale for condemning the construction is based on a false analogy with Latin." However, the authors do not cite any opponent of splitting who argues from such an analogy. In fact, Richard Bailey, a professor of English, writes, "If some purist has made such a comparison, I can find no record of it." The argument from classical languages may be a straw man constructed by a defender of the split infinitive and repeated as "part of the folkore of linguistics".

Current views

Present reference texts of usage deem simple split infinitives unobjectionable. (Compound split infinitives remain controversial; see Special situations below.) 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 (1993) notes that the split infinitive "eliminates all possibility of ambiguity", in contrast to the "potential for confusion" in an unsplit construction. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary says, "there has never been a rational basis for objecting to the split infinitive."

Nevertheless, many teachers of English still admonish students against using split infinitives. Because the prohibition has become so widely known, the Columbia Guide (1993, above) 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."

Avoiding split infinitives

Those writers who choose to avoid split infinitives can 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. Clearly, since 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, people who avoid it deliberately in obedience to prescribed rules may produce an awkward or ambiguous sentence. Fowler (1926) stressed the importance of correcting a split infinitive 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:..."

In some cases, moving the adverbial creates an ungrammatical sentence or changes the meaning. R.L. Trask uses this example:

She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.
"Gradually" splits the infinitive "to get." But if we were to move it, where would it go?
  • She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.
This might imply that the decision was gradual.
  • She decided to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected gradually.
This implies that the collecting process was gradual.
  • She decided to get gradually rid of the teddy bears she had collected.
This would sound awkward to most native speakers of English.
  • She decided to get rid gradually of the teddy bears she had collected.
This is almost as awkward as its immediate predecessor.

The sentence can be rewritten to maintain its meaning, however, using a noun or a different grammatical aspect of the verb:

  • She decided to get rid of her teddy bear collection gradually.
  • She decided she would gradually get rid of her teddy bear collection.

This last sentence is probably most natural in this case. Fowler notes that the option of rewriting is always available but questions whether it is always worth the trouble.

Special situations

Compound split infinitives, in which more than one adverb is employed, and other multi-word insertions are still contentious. In 1996 the usage panel of The American Heritage Book of English Usage were evenly divided for and against such sentences as I expect him to completely and utterly fail. More than three-quarters of the panel rejected We are seeking a plan to gradually, systematically, and economically relieve the burden. 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 We expect our output to more than double in a year.

Splitting infinitives with negations, as in the phrase I want to not see you anymore, remains one of the most complicated areas of contention. Even those who are generally tolerant of split infinitives may draw the line at infinitives split by negation, labeling them awkward or ungrammatical. Indeed, a Web or Usenet search will demonstrate that such phrases as told you not to still (as of 2006) greatly outnumber their split counterparts such as told you to not. The problem is that the relative inflexibility of negation, especially of certain verbs, makes reformulating such sentences difficult. Whereas I want to happily run can easily be altered to I want to run happily, I want to see you not is simply not modern English prose. There are multiple possibilities for altering this sentence, each with its own disadvantages: Moving the not immediately preceding the to-infinitive (I want not to see you any more) sounds awkward to most people. Negating the verb rather than the desire (I don't want to see you anymore) is in fact the most commonly used alternative, but in writing might appear ambiguous: if stressed on want, it implies no particular desire but no objection either. The simplest construction, I want to see you no more, is perfectly acceptable in written English but sounds stilted and is thus rarely found in the spoken language.

There are rare examples of non-adverbial phrases participating in the split-infinitive construction, but genuine examples are hard to find. 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 Layamon's and Shakespeare's split infinitives (cited above), in which the infinitive is split by a pronoun and a past participle respectively. However, clearly these would never have occurred in a prose text by the same authors. On the other hand, colloquial examples are to be found in recent literature. A modern example with a pronoun is It was their nature to all hurt one another.

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