How to Use Split Infinitives Correctly
By Daniel F O'Connor
What’s a split infinitive, then? Sounds a bit painful, in a vaguely science-fiction kind of way.
Speakers of non-English European languages will know what an infinitive is. It’s a verb in its pure, unaltered form. For example:
English: to go
English to sing
See the difference there? The French infinitive is one word, the English is two: “to” + “the verb”. In French and other languages, notably Latin, it’s impossible to split the infinitive; it’s either the infinitive form or it isn’t. That’s where the problem lies with English, because it is *possible* to split the infinitive.
Traditionalists prefer to think of the "to" and the "verb" as joined in an invisible embrace. And they shake with anger at the thought of anything coming between the two.
But why, really, should it matter? English is not Latin and it’s not French. One of the reasons English has flourished over any of its European cousins is its capacity to evolve, to change its shape to better serve its users and to not get too obsessed with tradition taking precedence over being understood.
In other words, take it easy. Often a split infinitive will just sound better and more powerful than its more tradition-bound twin:
The most famous example of the form I’m talking about is one you will all know. It was how James Tiberius Kirk described his five-year mission in the classic series, "Star Trek":
“To boldly go where no man has gone before!”
He didn’t say “To go boldly”. But just imagine if he had…
“To explore strange new worlds… To seek out new life and new civilizations… To go boldly where no man has gone before!”
Hhmmm, that just sounds weak.
What’s more, splitting the infinitive can make the meaning of what you want to say more clear. Compare the following:
- He told her kindly to stop talking in class
- He told her to kindly stop talking in class
In the first example, we’re not really sure of the tone of voice. Did he tell her to stop talking in a kindly way (”Come on now, be good and stop talking, eh?”), or did he say “kindly stop talking”, which sounds much more terse and much less, well... kind.
The second example makes it clear. He wasn’t talking to her in a kindly way. He was basically saying “shut up!”
So what do you do? Go with a non-split infinitive that follows tradition but which may occasionally sound unnatural or even make your meaning slightly obscure, or choose something that flows better but which runs the risk of having the reader think (wrongly) you’re making a grammatical error?
I tend to just go with what sounds best to my ear and maybe that’s what you should do, too. Read aloud what you’ve written (or whisper aloud, if you’re in an office and you’re worried people might think you’re a freak). Listening to the words you’ve written will help you decide whether it’s okay or not.
If you still can’t work out whether to split or not to split, why not re-work the whole sentence and avoid the problem completely?
Daniel O'Connor is a leading business writer in the UK. See his satisfaction-guaranteed site at daniboy.com
He's worked for some of the biggest companies and organisations in the world -- including NTT and Mitsubishi Electric, not to mention the 1998 Olympic Winter Games -- as well as some of the smallest.
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With a language-based background -- he's fluent in Japanese and French -- Daniel is supremely qualified at explaining complicated things in a simple way. There's nothing you can throw at him that he won't have dealt with before.
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