Understanding Split Infinitives

George Bernard Shaw
Upon learning that an editor had "tinkered" with his infinitives, playwright George Bernard Shaw said, "I don't care if he is made to go quickly, or to quickly go—but go he must.".

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In English grammar, a split infinitive is a construction in which one or more words come between the infinitive marker to and the verb (as in "to really try my best"). Also called a cleft infinitive.

A split infinitive is sometimes regarded as a type of tmesis.

"I think the evidence is conclusive enough," says editor Norman Lewis: "it is perfectly correct to consciously split an infinitive whenever such an act increases the strength or clarity of your sentence" (Word Power Made Easy, 1991).

Examples and Observations

Here are some examples of split infinitives, and descriptions of the term and its uses from other texts to help you better understand their function:

  • "To deliberately split an infinitive, puristic teaching to the contrary notwithstanding, is correct and acceptable English."
    (Norman Lewis, How to Speak Better English. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1948
  • "I was wise enough to never grow up while fooling most people into believing I had."
    (attributed to Margaret Mead)
  • "Hamilton from boyhood on was an overachiever, one who found it necessary to more than compensate for his feelings of inadequacy."
    (Peter R. Henriques, Realistic Visionary. University of Virginia Press, 2006)
  • "Her first class wasn't until the afternoon. That would give her time to quickly head to the house, then come back and grab a bite to eat in the cafeteria."
    (Kayla Perrin, The Delta Sisters. St. Martin's Press, 2004
  • "It seemed that he had caught [the fish] himself, years ago, when he was quite a lad; not by any art or skill, but by that unaccountable luck that appears to always wait upon a boy when he plays the wag from school."
    (Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat, 1889
  • "Milton was too busy to much miss his wife."
    (Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, 1779-1781
  • "News of the government’s plan to on average halve pay for the top 25 employees of firms that took two bailouts ricocheted down Wall Street on Wednesday."
    (Eric Dash, "A New Challenge for 2 Ailing Banks." The New York Times, Oct. 21, 2009
  • "The phrase 'to solemnly swear' is at best an explication of what is implied in the idea of swearing, at worst a pleonasm."
    (Peter Fenves, Arresting Language: From Leibniz to Benjamin. Stanford University Press, 2001

A 19th-Century Proscription

  • "Hostility to the practice of splitting infinitives developed in the nineteenth century. A magazine article dating from 1834 may well be the first published condemnation of it. A large number of similar prohibitions followed. The first to call it a 'split infinitive' was a contributor to the magazine Academy in 1897." (Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars. John Murray, 2011)

A False Analogy With Latin

  • "The only rationale for condemning the [split infinitive] construction is based on a false analogy with Latin. The thinking is that because the Latin infinitive is a single word, the equivalent English construction should be treated as if it were a single unit. But English is not Latin, and distinguished writers have split infinitives without giving it a thought. Noteworthy splitters include John Donne, Daniel Defoe, George Eliot, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, William Wordsworth, and Willa Cather. Still, those who dislike the construction can usually avoid it without difficulty." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, 2000)
  • "The split-infinitive rule may represent mindless prescriptivism's greatest height. It was foreign. (It was almost certainly based on the inability to split infinitives in Latin and Greek, since they consist of one word only.) It had been routinely violated by the great writers in English; one 1931 study found split infinitives in English literature from every century, beginning with the fourteenth-century epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . . .." (Robert Lane Greene, You Are What You Speak. Delacorte, 2011)

Clarity and Style

  • "In fact, an unsplit infinitive may be less clear than a split one, as in 'He decided to go boldly to confront his tormentor,' where it is unclear whether boldly is attached to go or confront or perhaps both." (Jean Aitchison, The Language Web: The Power and Problem of Words. Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  • "The condemnation of the split infinitive seems so devoid of adequate justification that, personally, I am accustomed to look upon it as merely idiosyncratic. The use of the idiom can be defended on various grounds, not the least substantial of which is the need of allowing language that freedom from purely artificial restraints which it continually and successfully claims. . . .
  • "Adverbs of one or two syllables readily adhere to the verb as prefixes, and thus disguise their reprobate individualities. But it is generally assumed that there is no glue strong enough to make such processional words as circumstantially, extraordinarily, disproportionately, and the like, stick within the split infinitive, and therefore they must be trailed after verbs like cartloads of bricks. The majority of the adverbs in common use, however, do not attain such unwieldy dimensions, and may well be admitted within the split infinitive, especially if clarity of apprehension is promoted thereby. And surely the idiom is not to be pilloried if it serves to make the sentence more harmonious—as, for instance, in 'He decided to rapidly march on the town,' where 'to march rapidly' is certainly less pleasing to the ear. From such considerations as these I therefore infer that the split infinitive does not merit the censure which critics frequently bestow on it." (J. Dormer, "Split Infinitive." Notes and Queries, January 21, 1905)

The Lighter Side of Split Infinitives

"Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split."
(Raymond Chandler, letter to Edward Weeks, Jan. 18, 1947. Quoted by F. MacShane in Life of Raymond Chandler, 1976)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Split Infinitives." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/split-infinitive-1692127. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Understanding Split Infinitives. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/split-infinitive-1692127 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Split Infinitives." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/split-infinitive-1692127 (accessed May 29, 2023).