Hit or myth? You shouldn’t split an infinitive

Split an infinitive and you can be sure someone nearby will start clutching their ears dramatically and berating you. But is it really wrong to occasionally split one? (Oops, we just did.) While playing by the rules of grammar is wise, it doesn’t mean you should blindly follow unnecessary and baseless mandates. Here, we separate the sensible rules from the senseless.

The infinitive is the simplest form of the verb, eg go, sleep, walk, trip and so forth. It comes in two forms: bare – as in the previous examples – or beginning with ‘to’: to go, to sleep, to walk, etc. Splitting an infinitive means inserting a word (often an adverb) between the ‘to’ and its verb. The most famous example of this is probably Captain Kirk’s star-trekking mission, ‘to boldly go’. But was the good captain thumbing his intergalactic nose at an essential code of language, or was his wording a worthy enterprise?

Bill Bryson says those who choose to slice up their infinitives are not guilty of crimes against grammar. ‘If it is an error at all,’ he writes in Troublesome Words, ‘it is a rhetorical fault – a question of style – and not a grammatical one.’

As with last month’s case study, prepositions ending sentences, this fallacious ‘rule’ has taken firm hold of many a grammar lover’s heart – without any basis in common sense. (You might say it’s illogical, Captain.) The objections to splitting the to-infinitive probably surfaced in the mid-nineteenth century, and seem to have been based merely on the fact that, well, it sounded funny. The most influential of these probably came from English theologian Henry Alford, who in 1864 declared:

It seems to me that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And, when we have already a choice between two forms of expression, “scientifically to illustrate” and “to illustrate scientifically”, there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.’

 

Split infinitives clang painfully on some ears to this day, and probably for the same reason: it’s not what the listener expects to hear. Indeed, there’s no reason to make a point of splitting your infinitives – particularly if you think your audience or reader may be of a conservative ilk.

However, those who treat to and its infinitive like Siamese twins who share a liver fail to acknowledge that, sometimes, avoiding the split leaves you with an ambiguous or ridiculous sentence.

Bryson cites this quote from The Times, which goes to great lengths to keep ‘to’ and ‘meet’ together: ‘The education system has failed adequately to meet the needs of industry and commerce…’ Considering that what this literally means is that the education system adequately achieved failure, one can’t be sure whether to commiserate with or congratulate them.

We asked Richard Dixon, grammar guru at The Times (also known as Chief Revise Editor), about the newspaper’s current stance. He said: ‘It’s a rule that on occasion needs to be broken,’ and quoted his style guide, which pragmatically advises: ‘Split infinitives are to be avoided but are not banned. On occasion, avoiding the split infinitive can lead to an unnatural or ambiguous construction. But generally try to keep the infinitive intact.’

The final word on this is that – case by case – the choice to split, or not to split, is for you to (thoughtfully) decide for yourself.

Verdict: myth

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