The Literary Salon

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Split Infinitive

I was recently reminded of a hotly debated grammatical issue: the split infinitive. Before you sigh and think to yourself, "great! another nobody telling us why we should not split infinitives," don't fret: I'm actually defending the construction. I happen to think that dogmatically arguing against splitting infinitives is pedantry. Allow me to explain.

First, what is the split infinitive? Very briefly: the infinitive form of verbs in English, unlike any other language I know of, is always to + verb (to run, to walk, to eat, to type, etc). Inserting a word, usually an adverb, between the two and the root verb is what is known as the split infinitive (to boldly go is perhaps the textbook example).

Here's why it is NOT wrong.

The split infinitive did not become a "problem" until the nineteenth century. In other words, no one noticed it until then. English writers have been splitting infinitives since at least the thirteenth century, and many of the best eighteenth-century writers did so as well. To argue that the split infinitive is just plain wrong betrays an ignorance, whether deliberate or not, of the history of the English language.

Now let us examine the construction ahistorically, that is, its use at the present time.

I do not advocate splitting infinitives for the hell of it. However, there are times when consciously avoiding the split infinitive can result in awkward, unidiomatic or, worse, obscure constructions. Take a look at the following example, which I have taken from Burchfield's edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage:

In not combining flatly to forbid hostilities.
In not combining to forbid flatly hostilities.

Compare with the following construction which has a split infinitive. It is clearer and more natural:

In not combining to flatly forbid hostilities.

Constructions that attempt to avoid the split infinitive at all costs can sound affected as well as obscure:

She wants honestly to marry that man.

To sum up: there is no reason why the split infinitive is wrong. There is nothing in the DNA of the language that forbids it (whereas you simply cannot say I has candy). If it is possible to preserve the infinitive without a loss of naturalness or meaning, then by all means do so, but don't feel you have to, despite the prevailing sense that it is simply wrong.


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