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To Split or Not To Split

Not everyone knows what an infinitive is, but everyone uses them.

Infinitives are formed when a verb is preceded by the word to, as in to run or to ask. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech might be the most famous use of infinitives in English literature.

One of the great misconceptions about English is that it is wrong to “split” an infinitive—that is, to put a word or words between to and the verb. According to this superstition, to quickly respond or to flatly refuse is incorrect; we should say instead, to respond quickly or to refuse flatly. This supposedly preserves the “integrity” of the infinitive.

The myth sprang up in the 18th century, when grammarians decreed that English should be modeled on Latin. In Latin, infinitives are one word, so they can’t be split. The trouble is that English is a Germanic, not a Romance, language. Imposing Latin rules on English is like demanding that cats act like dogs.

There is no point in splitting an infinitive just for the fun of it. Experienced writers do not split capriciously. But sometimes they prefer to—and sometimes they have to. A classic example of the latter case: I expect my salary to more than double. There’s no other place for more than except right between to and double.

Would Hamlet’s speech be so admired if it opened with “To be or to not be”? Splitting infinitives with not is usually a terrible idea. I decided not to go is a vast improvement on the clunky I decided to not go.

But now consider His mistake was to not go. It’s ugly, but it says what it means. Placing not before to go would invite ambiguity: His mistake was not instead of His mistake was. In this and many other cases involving split infinitives, a rewrite would be a good plan: He made a mistake by not going.

Finally, notice how often infinitives are split by dispensable adverbs, as in this sentence: I intend to strongly protest. The verbs intend and protest are dynamic enough to make strongly extraneous—I intend to protest would be an improvement. Any time an adverb can be removed, it should be.

POP QUIZ

Which sentences would be improved by “unsplitting” the infinitive? Which ones are fine the way they are? See our views below.

1. I was hoping she’d choose to not attend.

2. He wanted to strongly advise against it.

3. Alice needed to quickly leave.

4. She’s not expected to immediately fix the problem.

5. We decided to gradually get rid of the clutter.

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. I was hoping she’d choose not to attend.

2. He wanted to strongly advise against it. (We’d keep it as is; to strongly advise sounds more forceful to us than to advise strongly.)

3. Alice needed to leave. (The urgency of “needed” makes “quickly” unnecessary.)

4. She’s not expected to fix the problem immediately.

5. We decided to gradually get rid of the clutter. (Best option, although some would argue for get rid of the clutter gradually. Decided gradually to get rid of is ambiguous. Get gradually rid of and get rid gradually of strike us as ghastly alternatives.)

Posted on Sunday, September 8, 2013, at 12:45 pm


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