Unpacking Split Infinitives: Understanding the Basics and Beyond

Marcus Froland

Welcome to the fascinating world of English grammar! Today, we’re going to explore a contentious topic that generates much debate among grammar enthusiasts: split infinitives. By the end of this article, you’ll have a solid understanding of split infinitive usage and how to approach them in your own writing.

Split infinitives have been a source of controversy for centuries, with some experts arguing that they represent a grammatical error, while others consider them a natural part of the ever-evolving English language. So, strap in and get ready to enhance your understanding of grammar as we dive into split infinitives and their role in English communication.

Defining Split Infinitives in English Grammar

What are split infinitives, and how do they fit within English grammar? In simple terms, split infinitives are phrases in which an adverb is placed between the word ‘to’ and the base form of a verb, like “to run,” “to play,” or “to not run.” It’s essential to understand this split infinitive explanation to grasp the complexities of English grammar rules.

Despite traditional grammar guidelines favoring intact infinitives, split infinitives have become increasingly prevalent in both spoken and informal writing. These constructions can modify emphasis within a sentence and, in some cases, more accurately convey the intended meaning when compared to their non-split counterparts. Let’s look at an example:

She decided to boldly speak up at the meeting.

In this sentence, the split infinitive “to boldly speak” emphasizes the act of speaking boldly, stressing a particular aspect of the speaker’s action. Without the split infinitive, the sentence loses some of its punch:

She decided boldly to speak up at the meeting.

The emphasis on “boldly” is lessened, and the meaning of the sentence changes slightly.

To better understand the use of split infinitives, let’s examine some common examples:

  • To quickly run
  • To loudly sing
  • To not listen
  • To suddenly stop

It’s worth noting that some linguists argue that the avoidance of split infinitives is a holdover from Latin grammar rules, which don’t apply to English. However, others maintain that maintaining the integrity of infinitives is essential for clarity and elegance in written communication. Regardless of which viewpoint is embraced, a firm grasp of split infinitives remains a crucial aspect of mastering grammar rules.

The History and Controversy of Split Infinitives

The split infinitive controversy has been a point of grammar debate for centuries. Tracing infinitive rules history and the evolution of modern grammar can offer valuable insights into the acceptance of splitting infinitives in evolving English usage.

Emergence of the Split Infinitive Debate

Although splitting infinitives has appeared in English writing since the 1300s, the debate surrounding its acceptability gained momentum in the 19th century. Grammarians of that time firmly believed that an infinitive should remain intact with the word ‘to’ directly preceding the verb without interruption. This aversion to split infinitives stemmed from a desire to emulate Latin grammar rules, where splitting infinitives is impossible since their form is a single word.

Infinitives, which constitute a single notion and form but a single word in other languages, ought never to be divided by an intervening adverb. – George Nott’s Annotation on Shakspeare, 1805

Year Author Example of Split Infinitive Usage
1762 Tobias Smollett Ferdinand was too much occuPied to immediately reply
1795 William Cowper We expect to see them sink to suddenly and finally
1864 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow She knows how to skillfully stir the fire

Modern Views on Splitting Infinitives

Over the years, perspectives on grammar have shifted, with increased split infinitive acceptance among scholars, linguists, and writers. This shift acknowledges the practical usage of split infinitives by native English speakers, even within formal writing.

  • The 20th-century grammarian H. W. Fowler argued that rigidly avoiding split infinitives could lead to awkward phrasing and ambiguity.
  • Renowned author and linguist Steven Pinker states that avoiding split infinitives can make sentences less fluent and harder to decode.

Contemporary guidelines, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, and Garner’s Modern English Usage, all accept splitting infinitives for clarity or emphasis. This lenient approach to split infinitives is a reflection of evolving English usage and the understanding that language is a living, dynamic entity.

When Is It Acceptable to Use a Split Infinitive?

Split infinitives can be an essential tool in your writing arsenal, effectively enhancing sentence clarity and emphasizing key points. Knowing when to split infinitives ensures that your written communication is clear and engaging. Let’s dive into two primary scenarios where split infinitives are not only acceptable but often preferred:

Enhancing Sentence Clarity with Split Infinitives

First and foremost, split infinitives can enhance sentence clarity. This means that by splitting the infinitive, you eliminate confusion about which verb the adverb modifies, ultimately achieving clear communication. Consider the following:

To properly (to quickly verify) verify the information, please contact customer support.

By placing the adverb “quickly” between “to” and “verify,” the meaning of the sentence is unmistakable. Rearranging the sentence to avoid splitting the infinitive might unintentionally compromise its readability:

To verify the information quickly, please contact customer support.

In this case, the sentence’s emphasis shifts from the action of verifying to the action of contacting customer support, potentially causing confusion.

The Role of Emphasis in Split Infinitive Usage

Another reason for using split infinitives is when you want to create emphasis or stress an idea in your sentence, particularly when relating a shift in decision or an action’s intensity. Using a split infinitive can effectively draw attention to an adverb, as illustrated in the following example:

They decided to not stay another night.

In this instance, the split infinitive establishes emphasis on the decision not to extend their stay, rather than the action of staying itself. It becomes clear that their choice carries weight, significantly impacting the context of the situation.

Unsplit Infinitive Split Infinitive Purpose
To read slowly the document To slowly read the document Enhancing sentence clarity
To only study one subject To study only one subject Adding emphasis

While traditional grammar rules might discourage splitting infinitives, they can play a pivotal role in effective writing when applied judiciously. Use split infinitives to enhance sentence clarity and provide necessary emphasis, but remember to gauge their appropriateness in your intended context.

Examples of Split Infinitives in Action

Split infinitives are a common aspect of informal language and everyday conversation. They can be found in colloquial phrases such as “to boldly go where no one has gone before” and “to quickly read an article.” In differentiating between formal and informal writing, it’s essential to understand when to use split infinitives and when to avoid them.

Split Infinitives in Informal vs. Formal Contexts

In informal writing, split infinitives are generally more acceptable, given their prevalence in everyday speech. Here are a few examples:

  • She wanted to quickly finish the project.
  • He tried to not make any mistakes during the presentation.
  • We’re determined to thoroughly clean the entire house.

However, in formal writing, traditional grammar rules advise against the use of split infinitives. Instead, adjustments can be made to keep the meaning and enhance clarity. The adverb placement could be changed, or the sentence could be rephrased entirely. Here are alternative versions of the above examples:

  1. She wanted to finish the project quickly.
  2. He tried not to make any mistakes during the presentation.
  3. We’re determined to clean the entire house thoroughly.

It’s important to note that while split infinitives are generally avoided in formal writing, there may be instances where it’s preferred for clarity or emphasis. Writers must exercise judgment and consider context when deciding to use split infinitives in their writing.

Avoiding Awkwardness: Alternatives to Split Infinitives

In formal writing, where split infinitives are typically avoided, there are alternatives to ensure your sentences maintain meaning and flow smoothly. By placing the adverb before or after the full infinitive phrase, you can eliminate splits while preserving clarity. For example, instead of writing “to boldly go,” you can rephrase it as “to go boldly” or “boldly to go.”

However, care must be taken when repositioning adverbs in your sentences. Sometimes, moving an adverb to avoid splitting an infinitive can lead to ambiguity or awkwardness. In these cases, it is essential to assess the impact on the meaning and structure of your sentence before making any changes.

To improve your writing style and effectively implement grammar tips, practice rephrasing sentences with split infinitives and compare the results. As you gain experience, you will develop a natural ability to choose the most appropriate option for clarity and flow. Keep in mind that while staying true to traditional grammar rules is essential in formal writing, it is also important to prioritize clear and effective communication above all else.