Have you ever split an infinitive?
Have you ever been told not to split an infinitive?
Is it okay, or is it a big no-no?
An infinitive is any verb that has not been conjugated. “To jump” instead of “I jump” or “he jumps.” To + verb = infinitive. An infinitive is split when an adverbial clause separates to and the verb. For example “to merrily dance” instead of “to dance merrily.”
Revealing the Truth behind Split Infinitives
The General Belief about Split Infinitives
In high school I was strictly taught that you should never ever, under any circumstance split an infinitive. Although I can’t remember anyone ever explaining why, I followed the rule diligently and obediently.
The Truth about Split Infinitives
One day in college, I had a professor tell us that in many circumstances, it’s absolutely fine to split an infinitive. I was flabbergasted. How could it be okay to split an infinitive? How could something I’d believed and been taught for years be false?
As I learned the history behind the rule about splitting infinitives my eyes were opened. I understood split infinitives in a whole new light. The English language is derived from Latin. And in Latin (like many other languages) an infinitive is one word. Therefore, they are impossible to split. This became the basis of why they shouldn’t be split in English.
Many usage dictionaries concur that there is nothing grammatically incorrect about splitting an infinitive. Yet, because it is such a big debate amongst linguists it is advised only to split an infinitive when it improves clarity.
There are certainly circumstances when it makes more sense to split an infinitive than it does to follow a rule that is only strictly upheld by purists. There are many examples where split infinitives are found in good writing. And there are instances when clarity is improved by splitting an infinitive.
Using Split Infinitives
In the sentence “I want to feel, to really feel,” a split infinitive is perfectly acceptable. It would sound awkward to say “really to feel” or “to feel really.”
Similarly, in the phrase “commanded innocently to proceed” there could be slight confusion whether innocently is modifying commanded or to proceed. Splitting the infinitive resolves any confusion, “commanded to innocently proceed.” Of course, this could also be written, “commanded to proceed innocently” but then the emphasis is on the adverb innocently instead of the verb proceed. So, split infinitives can be used stylistically to place emphasis on the verb instead of the adjective.
An infinitive should not be split by a wordy phrase. The sentence “I am going to when the time is right ask her to marry me” would be better written “I am going to ask her to marry me when the time is right. Or even, “When the time is right, I am going to ask her to marry me.”
While a lot of these configurations and situations might never appear in a novel, I hope it is at least useful for you to know (if you didn’t already) that it is acceptable to split an infinitive.
Were you taught in school not to split an infinitive? What is your current view on splitting infinitives?