Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Split Infinitives: To Boldly Go Where Everyone Has Gone Before

Carmen e-mailed in with a question that every writer has asked at one time or another:
"My writing teacher scolds me about using split infinitives, yet I see and hear them everywhere. Is this really such a big deal? For example, the split infinitive in this headline on the Huffington Post reads just fine to me."

Carmen, you can politely tell your teacher to take a chill pill. Good writing calls for splitting an infinitive now and then. But great writers will do it purposefully rather than randomly.

The crusade against split infinitives dates back hundreds of years, to when grammarians would reflexively impose Latin rules on the English language. Since infinitives could not be split in Latin, it was reasoned, we should not split infinitives in English. But today's style guides generally take a relaxed view. By 1959, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style conceded, "Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does." Bottom line: Use your ear to decide whether an infinitive should to be split.

Back story: What is an infinitive and how do you split one?
  • The infinitive is the verb form constructed with "to" + another word: to go, to read, to swim, to laugh, and so on. 
  • Placing an adverb between "to" and the other word is known as "splitting" the infinitive.

Quick rules:
  • While there's nothing inherently wrong with splitting an infinitive, writing is typically more precise if you can avoid it. She decided to go quickly into the house. She decided to quickly go into the house. The first sentence is crisper and less awkward.
  • Splitting an infinitive tends to put added emphasis on the adverb, which may slightly change the meaning. The pianist was supposed to practice diligently every day. The pianist was supposed to diligently practice every day.
  • Sometimes you simply need to split the infinitive. He told her to read carefully the manuscript. That sounds ridiculous compared with He told her to carefully read the manuscript. And consider how the Huffington Post headline would sound without the split infinitive: How to kick naturally the habit. Just awful.

Sharpen your writing style:


  1. Could they have written "kick the habit naturally"?

  2. Use paraphrasing online to paraphrase or rewrite full length essays and articles or to find new ways to express simple phrases, sentences or single words.