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Don’t Split an Infinitive (Unless It Sounds Good)

Here’s question 1: Have you ever heard the “don’t split an infinitive” writing rule?

And here’s question 2: Have you ever wondered what in the world a split infinitive is?

If the answer to question 1 is yes, then you paid attention in grammar class.

If the answer to question 2 is yes, then you paid less attention than you should have. Which, let’s face it, isn’t that abnormal or inexplicable.

As such, you’re excused for your past ignorance. Though, if you keep on being ignorant after reading the description below, I think your excuses are out the window.

Because infinitives are actually quite simple things. They’re the base form of verbs.

For the record, there are five forms of any infinitive. But we’re just going to go with the most common understanding, which is “to” and then the present-tense form of the verb in question. As in:

  • To be

  • To write

  • To live

  • To paint

  • To study.

And so on and so forth.

With that established, we can then establish what splitting an infinitive is. To cut to the chase, it seems safe to call it a so-called crime punishable by often annoyingly misinformed criticism.

If “to write” is an example of an infinitive, “to happily write” would be an example of splitting an infinitive.

What’s wrong with that, you might wonder?

Well, according to the Dean of Canterbury, Henry Alford, in his 1864 book The Queen’s English, it’s not necessarily wrong. There’s just “no good reason” to do any such thing, “The safest choice is to avoid” it altogether.

Thank you, Grammar Girl, for that historical insight.

Apparently, he wasn’t the first person to express his disdain for adverbs placed that way. He was only perhaps the most prominent.

Here’s a bit more from Grammar Girl:

“One reason Alford gave for his belief was that nobody was doing it… but the Oxford English Dictionary disagrees, reporting that split infinitives were widespread at the time.
“In fact, many respected writers, both before and after Alford’s time, have employed split infinitives, including Thomas Cromwell, Daniel Defoe, Lord Byron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Gaskell, Benjamin Franklin, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”

Why would so many famous writers flout such wise words? My thought is that they recognized how very situational the words really were.

No offense to Alford.

Here’s the thing: The English language is a hodgepodge concoction from many different languages that each have their own rules. So it’s rather difficult to come up with hard-and-fast rules that apply to every single sentence or grammatical situation.

That’s not to say that hard-and-fast rules don’t exist. Only that they’re much fewer and further between than some people seem to think. The “don’t split an infinitive” so-called writing rule is a case in point.

Sometimes, yes, breaking up an infinitive makes a statement look clunky. “For instance, “She said to not go,” sounds odd. “She said not to go,” comes across much more smoothly.

But consider another example: “Here’s a tip to safely clean the apples.” How does that sound any better or worse than, “Here’s a tip to clean the apples safely”?

If anything, I’d argue that I like the split infinitive more. And there are plenty other instances like that, most famously, “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” from Star Trek.

“To go boldly where no man has gone before,” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

That’s hardly a scientific justification for breaking a dearly held understanding of good grammar, I know. However, my suggestion remains the same…

When it comes to split infinitives, sound it out. If it sounds good and makes sense, feel free to keep it as-is.

Thomas Cromwell, Daniel Defoe, Lord Byron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Gaskell, Benjamin Franklin, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, at least, won’t fault you for it.

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