Don’t Shy From Split Infinitives

By Ian Nesbitt

A split infinitive is a grammatical construction in which a word or phrase divides the “to” and the verb (e.g., “to go”).  Split infinitives might sound complicated, but they’re a pretty simple thing to understand. Let’s look at quick example of one:

During his career, Michael Jordan demonstrated how to precisely shoot the basketball from any angle.

In this sentence, let’s single out the split infinitive, which is “to precisely shoot.” In this phrase, the infinitive verb is “to shoot” and the word that splits this infinitive is the adverb “precisely.” Not so bad right? Let’s look at another type of split infinitive, which is the compound split infinitive:

The students were disruptive during the lecture and as a consequence their professor decided to more than double their reading for the week.

Here, we find another split infinitive, which is “to more than double.”

Both of these examples demonstrate what a split infinitive is and that they aren’t as weird as they sound. In fact, most of us, including myself, use them every day. The only problem is that split infinitives are controversial. Grammarians have debated for ages about whether or not there is any room for the split infinitive in modern English. You can thank Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury, and his book The Queen’s English published in 1864 for this. Alford didn’t state it as a rule, but rather “saw no good reason” to split the infinitive. Regardless, lots of prominent authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald have employed them in their writing. Because there is no absolute rule on whether or not it is okay to split an infinitive, consider the following tips.

First, think about what you are writing. Split infinitives are often times used as tools to give some extra flair to sentences. However, they are not necessary to convey meaning, so for your scientific writing, statistical reports, memos and other professional styles of writing, the split infinitive might not be the best choice for adding emphasis. Those styles are better suited to concrete details for making points, not creative language, but written pieces that are more artistic in nature and lend a bit of liberty to the writer are usually great places to include split infinitives. The modifier inserted into your infinitive can be a great way to create a different tone than is seen in professional styles of writing. Of course, that tone is yours to create.

Once you’ve decided to employ a split infinitive, there is a key detail that can’t be overlooked, and that is the quality of the language. So the second tip is this: if splitting an infinitive with a modifier improves the readability of your sentence, or helps you achieve your goals in terms of style, then do it. If splitting an infinitive makes your sentence awkward or unbalanced, first consider a different modifier, and then consider rewriting the sentence.

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