How to (Not) Split Infinitives

by | Jun 19, 2008 | Craft: Short Story Writing, Submit Your Writing | 0 comments

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Writers have been told not to split infinitives (or to not split them!) ever since grade school, and the reason goes way back. In Latin the infinitive form of a verb is one word, and as 19th-century grammarians were big Latin fans, they decided that the rules of English should conform to those of Latin. Hence, splitting an infinitive would be akin to splitting a word in half. But in modern times, unless we are translating Latin, splitting an infinitive is not necessarily bad grammar.

What is an infinitive? It’s the verb form using “to,” as in “to write” or “to publish.” It becomes a split infinitive by inserting a word after “to”: “to quickly write” or “to successfully publish.”

Here are some examples of using split infinitives:

Before it careened out of sight, the car managed to just make the corner.

In this sentence the infinitive is “to make,” and inserting “just” between the infinitive puts the emphasis on the fact that it was a near thing.

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Another example:

Our goal is to further cement relations between the two countries. Here the infinitive is split to emphasize “further.”

The more “correct” form changes the meaning of the sentence: Our goal is to cement further relations between the two countries.

Or: Our goal is further to cement relations between the two countries. In this case, not splitting the infinitive leads to awkward phrasing and a clumsier sentence.

Another example is the famous Star Trek title sequence: To boldly go where no man has gone before!

Again, this phrase loses strength when the infinitive is not split. To go boldly where no man has gone before just doesn’t pack the same punch.

Most writers strive to keep their infinitives cozily joined together out of fear of looking ignorant of basic grammar. And it’s true that, most of the time, the infinitive functions best as a whole unit. However, the writer should always err on the side of comprehension and flow rather than the conventions of 19th-century Latin aficionados. George Bernard Shaw said it best when he wrote to The London Times:

“There is a busybody on your staff who devotes a lot of time to chasing split infinitives: I call for the immediate dismissal of this pedant. It is of no consequence whether he decides to go quickly or to quickly go or quickly to go. The important thing is that he should go at once.”

The staff at Writer’s Relief knows that a writer’s job is to write. We can help with the non-creative aspects of writing and publishing, and our submission specialists have been helping writers connect with editors and literary agents since 1994. And our proofreaders are trained to look for grammatical issues like split infinitives and to deal with them sensitively. Give us a call if you’re looking for help!

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