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What is a "split infinitive" and what's wrong with it?

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In his book A Plea for the Queen's English (1864), Henry Alford (1810-1871) transformed the misnamed split infinitive into a bête noire.

Question: What is a "split infinitive" and what's wrong with it?
Answer:

The so-called split infinitive is a construction in which one or more words come between the particle to and the verb--as in "to boldly go where no man has gone before."

And there's nothing wrong with it.

Until the 1800s, writers had been casually splitting infinitives for centuries. For example, in his Lives of the English Poets (1779-1781), Samuel Johnson observed that "Milton was too busy to much miss his wife."

But then, as if to illustrate Pope's dictum that "a little learning is a dangerous thing," a small gang of grammaticasters decided to turn the split infinitive into a problem. One of the chief trouble-makers was a British churchman named Henry Alford. Editor Patricia T. O'Conner recounts the story:

In a widely popular grammar book, A Plea for the Queen's English (1864), [Alford] mistakenly declared that 'to' was part of the infinitive and that the parts were inseparable. He was probably influenced by the fact that the infinitive, the simplest form of a verb, is one word in Latin and thus can't be split. But Alford was unaware that the infinitive is just one word in English too. You can't split it, since "to" is just a prepositional marker and not part of the infinitive. In fact, sometimes it's not needed at all. In a sentence like "Miss Mulch thought she was helping him to write proper English," the "to" could easily be dropped.
(Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. Random House, 2009)
By the way, an infinitive without to is called a zero infinitive.

Though your persnickety grammar checker may insist on flagging split infinitives, you'll be hard pressed to find a reputable usage guide that upholds this potty proscription. Here's a sampling of observations from grammarians and language mavens.

  • "The evidence in favor of the judiciously split infinitive is sufficiently clear to make it obvious that teachers who condemn it arbitrarily are wasting their time and that of their students."
    (Sterling A. Leonard, English Usage, 1932)


  • "The split infinitive is another trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook. Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does. 'I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.' The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear, the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible. Put the other way, the sentence becomes stiff, needlessly formal. A matter of ear."
    (William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. Macmillan, 1979)


  • "To repeat, the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis."
    (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, 1994)


  • "The consensus is:
    - Don't split an infinitive if the result is an inelegant sentence.
    - Do split infinitives to avoid awkward wording, to preserve a natural rhythm, and especially to achieve the intended emphasis and meaning."
    (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004)


  • "There are still some prescriptive grammar books around that warn against what they call the 'split infinitive.' . . . Phrases like to really succeed have been in use for hundreds of years. Most usage manuals now recognize this, and also recognize that in some cases placing the adjunct between to and the verb is stylistically preferable to other orderings."
    (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006)
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