To split, or not to split?

Actually, I could add a literary pun to that sentence by rewriting it as “to split, or to not split?”

So a matter which may occasionally concern anyone who spends a lot of time writing in English is that of the split infinitive. Interestingly, it’s no longer taught in school that one should not split one’s infinitives. Actually I doubt the majority of native English speakers even know what an infinitive is anymore, let alone how you might split one. So, precisely what is an infinitive and how exactly can you try not to unnecessarily split them?

An infinitive is the basic form of any verb. Specifically the form which can have the word “to” placed in front of it. “To go” is a good example of an infinitive. To split an infinitive means to place an adjective between “to” and “go”. The classic example is the Star Trek example, actually, where “to boldly go” is a split infinitive.

Interestingly, it’s not certain when the split infinitive became considered bad grammar. The earliest specific reference to them was in the late 19th century, becoming more pronounced in the early 20th century. Previously, the term “cleft infinitive” had been used, but that seemingly also dates back to the 19th century. Even less clear is why a split infinitive was considered bad grammar in the first place. It’s possible that it relates to scholarly texts being previously written in Latin. Due to the grammar of Latin, it’s not actually possible to split an infinitive, and thus it seems likely that no such split infinitives would have existed in the English translations of such texts. Scholars reading these translations would probably have noticed this and followed suit.

Other grammarians have noted in the past that the word “to” should not be considered as part of the verb, citing that phases such as “the good man” are not considered split nominatives, and thus split infinitives are a superfluous concept.

In modern usage, however, splitting infinitives is no longer considered questionable. Many authors split them readily without batting an eyelid, although it’s still considered by some to be bad form. So should you split them or not? Well, frankly, I do occasionally split infinitives. Well ok, I do it quite a lot, but it can add some dramatic effect to sometimes do so. On the other hand, a sentence with too many split infinitives can be cumbersome to write and confusing to read. In fact, it seems to be a hallmark of the infuriatingly watery corporate speak that seems to plague both business and science in English speaking countries of late. Those company “mission statements” which were clearly written by a boardroom full of suited executives are always full of them.

Would you, for instance, decide to “quickly and succinctly write an article” or would you decide to “write an article, quickly and succintly”. Would an environmental scientist like “to as quickly as possible remedy the global warming problem” or would they like “to remedy the global warming problem as quickly as possible”. In my humble opinion, the latter phrase sounds much clearer. It has to be said, in the formal and technical writings which I’ve read, split infinitives are extremely rare. A good journal paper, for instance, won’t have any split infinitives in the abstract or conclusion. The more technical the writing, the easier it is to read that way. Furthermore, it does tend to stop authors throwing in too many adjectives (something which is done all too easily if you have a lot to say).

Going back to our Star Trek example though, “to go boldly” just doesn’t have the same impact as “to boldly go”. I think the bottom line is; when using split infinitives, most authors should be mindful to use them wisely, or to wisely misuse them.

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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