Split infinitives: don’t even bother reading this post about them

by | Sep 29, 2017 | Language & grammar | 1 comment

You really don’t need to read this blog post about split infinitives.

Seriously, just stop reading how. Hit that back button and get back to your facepoking or snapcats or whatever people do online these days. I am not trying to use reverse psychology – you honestly don’t need to worry about split infinitives.

Still here, huh? OK, let’s go.

What’s the deal with split infinitives?

Whether or not you can split an infinitive is one of the most frequently talked (and argued) about grammatical rules.

First let’s define infinitives.

An infinitive is just a verb with the word ‘to’ in front of it. For example:

  • to eat
  • to laugh
  • to write
  • to appreciate
  • to go where no one has gone before

Pretty simple, right?

Splitting the infinitive means putting an adverb between the ‘to’ and the verb:

  • to frantically eat
  • to noisily laugh
  • to quickly write
  • to fully appreciate
  • to boldly go where no one has gone before (yes, that’s from Star Trek, and probably the most famous split infinitive of all time.

When an adverb appears in the middle of the infinitive like this, it becomes a split infinitive.

And some people hate that. Instead, they insist that the adverb needs to go after the infinitive:

  • to eat frantically
  • to laugh noisily
  • to write quickly
  • to appreciate fully
  • to go boldly where no one has gone before.

As you can see, both the split and non-split infinitives make perfect sense, and it really doesn’t matter which one you use.

So why do some people hate split infinitives?

Short answer:

Because some people are idiots.

Longer answer:

Probably because of the Ancient Romans.

Like many European languages, English evolved from Latin, the language spoken in Ancient Rome. And in Latin an infinitive is a single word.

For example: the Latin word for love is (apparently) amô, and the infinitive form (‘to love’) is amâre. If we wanted to split this Latin infinitive (e.g. ‘to really love’) we couldn’t. You can’t just go around inserting words into the middle of other words, even in the wild, orgy-filled days of Ancient Rome.

Latin evolved into English (and French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian) over the next couple of thousand years, and sometime after 1100 AD the infinitive evolved from one word into two. And when they weren’t dying of the Black Death or fighting in endless wars, plenty of people split infinitives without the world coming to an end, including a pretty highly regarded writer by the name of William Shakespeare.

But in 19th-century England, a group of rich old white men got together and decided that splitting the infinitive was “not unfrequent among uneducated persons” and therefore was a Very Bad Thing. It didn’t matter that there was no logical reason to ban it – they waved their rich old white man wands, and a new grammatical rule was born: Thou Shalt Never Split an Infinitive.

The rule was pretty closely observed for a century or so until the freewheeling 60s brought something of a backlash against the old English way of doing things.

Raymond Chandler, complaining about a proofreader who had corrected all his split infinitives, wrote:

“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down 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 remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.”

What about now?

Thanks to textual rebels like Raymond Chandler, modern English has more or less accepted the split infinitive, recognising that it makes no difference to the meaning of a phrase, and can often make it easier or more enjoyable to read.

However, there are still some so-called purists who insist that an infinitive must never be split.

If you come across one of these people, please tell them to boldly go and shove their silly, outdated rules up their bum.

Got a grammatical rule you’d like me to write about? Get in touch and let me know.

1 Comment

  1. Sandra Muller

    I think I enjoyed this post a little bit too much.

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