Contemporary Language Debate: Split Infinitives

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Links in this essay will take you to information about the usage experts and their work. Numbers in parentheses are page references in the sources.


Split Infinitives


       At one time, writers were advised, "Never split an infinitive." That hard-and-fast rule is finally being laid to rest. The modern rule is more flexible: Yes, avoid split infinitives when they sound awkward, but don't go into verbal contortions to avoid them.


In our next newsletter, we will try to more clearly define company policy.
[Better: to define company policy more clearly]

In an attempt to free the hostages, the SWAT team decided boldly to raid the plane.
[Better: decided to boldly raid the plane]


       Usage experts have been surprisingly passionate in their campaign against the rule banning all split infinitives. Patricia O'Conner gives the rule a tombstone icon and labels it R.I.P. —rest in peace (210). William Morris and Mary Morris called the rule a "pedantic bogey" dating from the nineteenth century (338).

       The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage fills us in on the history:


Split infinitives . . . were accepted until a grammar book published in 1864,The Queen's English, strongly opposed placing words between to and the stem of the verb. This pronouncement became the voice of authority until 1926, when H. G. Fowler . . . argued that personal style and clarity of meaning should take precedence. (148)


       Why have the experts fought so hard against the absolute ban on split infinitives? The reason is simple: They care about good writing. As Roy Copperudputs it, "If a sentence doesn't sound right, it isn't any good, whether the infinitive is split, rewoven, braided, or sawed in half" (202).

       The effort to avoid the split infinitive at all costs has possibly resulted in more bad writing than the split infinitive itself. Consider the following examples, given byRené Cappon:


They said they would try carefully to dislodge the tangle of twisted girders tomorrow.

They said they would try to dislodge carefully the tangle of twisted girders tomorrow. (115)

They said they would try to carefully dislodge the tangle of twisted girders tomorrow.


       Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis even suggest that unsplitting an infinitive can at times be an error—because the revision changes the intended meaning or results in ambiguity. Consider their example of a correct split infinitive:


He decided to promptly return the money he found.


       The following alternatives change the meaning because promptly attaches itself to the wrong word:


He promptly decided to return the money he found.

He decided to return the money he found promptly.


       And this next alternative is ambiguous because we can't tell whether promptlygoes with decided or return:


He decided promptly to return the money he found. (90)


       There are times, of course, when a split infinitive sounds more awkward than alternative phrasing. Cappon gives a few examples:


The company hopes to substantially increase profits.

They promised to at all times obey the law of the land.

They planned to quickly and decisively deal with the economic slump. (116)


Unsplitting these infinitives results in more graceful phrasing: to increase profitssubstantially; to obey the law of the land at all times; to deal with the economic slump quickly and decisively.
       William Morris and Mary Morris can have the last word: On the matter of split infinitives, they advise, "Proceed with caution, but not in fear" (338).


Source: Hacker Handbooks (Boston: Bedford, 2013).