The Surprising Truth About Split Infinitives

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Here’s a secret: I’ve never been explicitly taught not to split infinitives (or to not split infinitives?). Surprise!

The Surprising Truth About the Split Infinitive

If that statement’s a shocking pronouncement, or if it makes no sense at all, never fear. Let’s take a step back and look at the long, illustrious history of split infinitives.

What is an infinitive?

First off: what’s an infinitive?

When you use a verb in a sentence, you conjugate it—that is, you change its form to match the subject and the tense. The infinitive, though, is the original form of the verb, before it’s changed to fit into a sentence.

Here’s an example:

Infinitive: to snuggle
Conjugated: I snuggle, you snuggle, he snuggles, she snuggles, we snuggle, they snuggle

The funny thing about the English language is that the full infinitive of a verb is always two words: it always includes the word “to.” Without the “to,” it’s called the bare infinitive.

And that’s where all this trouble starts . . .

What is a split infinitive?

It’s exactly what it sounds like:

Want some examples? Try these:

I want to really understand what you’re saying.

She got a new alarm clock because she’s trying to not oversleep every morning.

Or this famous example:

To boldly go where no man has gone before. —Star Trek

Why shouldn’t you split infinitives?

There’s a long-standing, often-repeated rule in English that thou shalt not split infinitives. It’s generally taught in schools and many grammar nazis uphold it with unswerving fervor.

It’s a pretty archaic rule. Most scholars trace it back to the early 19th century, when modern English grammar was still being invented. Some guy named Henry Alford (who wrote the book The King’s English) decided that since you can’t split infinitives in Latin, you shouldn’t be splitting infinitives in English.

Here’s the thing: infinitives in Latin are just one word. It’s impossible to split a Latin infinitive because there’s nothing to split.

It may be an old, oft-cited rule—but it’s also pretty baseless.

When should you obey the rule?

Before we abandon the rule completely, let’s talk about the times when it’s helpful. There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Take a look at this example:

He’s going to nicely, sweetly, and unexpectedly ask her to the prom.

That’s four words between “to” and “ask.” By the time you get to “ask,” you’ve almost lost track of the sentence completely. Let’s move some words around:

He’s going to ask her to the prom nicely, sweetly, and unexpectedly.

Beware of cramming too many words into your infinitives. That can get clunky, messy, and confusing fast.

On the other hand, let’s take another look at our original examples. If we were to rephrase them, we’d lose some meaning:

I really want to understand what you’re saying.

Sure, you might really want to understand, but that’s different from really understanding. One means to have a true desire to understand; the other is to want a deep, thorough understanding.

She got a new alarm clock because she’s trying not to oversleep every morning.

“To not oversleep” puts firm emphasis on her action, which we lose with this arrangement. She’s trying to NOT OVERSLEEP, okay?! Stop giving her a hard time about her mornings!

To go boldly where no man has gone before.

This loses the elegant ring of “to boldly go.” Would “to go boldly” ever have become such a famous phrase? We’ll never know.

To split or to not split? Don’t worry

Splitting infinitives doesn’t generally hinder comprehension unless you’re trying to cram fifteen words in (don’t do that!). So split away!

Enjoy being able to slowly chew your dinner! Take time to really think of your fabulous story ideas! Make it your mission to boldly go where no man (or woman!) has gone before.

And if grammar nazis or English teachers give you trouble, feel free to confidently whip out your knowledge of the history of the English language and defend your split infinitives.

Do you feel passionately about split (or not-split) infinitives? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Write about a group of puppies, kittens, ferrets, grasshoppers, or any animal of your choice. Use infinitives to set the scene, and split them as much as your heart desires (or don’t; this is your free writing time).

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re done, share your practice in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

Alice Sudlow is the Editor-in-Chief of The Write Practice and a Story Grid certified developmental editor. Her specialty is in crafting transformative character arcs in young adult novels. She also has a keen eye for comma splices, misplaced hyphens, and well-turned sentences, and is known for her eagle-eyed copywriter skills. Get her free guide to how to edit your novel at alicesudlow.com.

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56 Comments

  1. alba 17

    To scamper as if weightless, always moving; to jump and tumble, flinging your body this way and that, heedlessly. To fall suddenly with a thump, into a coma-like sleep. To wiggle into your mother’s belly, the scent of milk like a homing signal, your siblings’ warmth familiar and comforting. You know nothing else, the world is new and fresh and undiscovered. To learn, every moment a leap into the unknown, your body this thing that you don’t know yet how to use. Why didn’t those feet do what I wanted? Why am I suddenly on my back and where did that toy go? Even before your eyes were open, your nose told you when you were safe and when you’d better cuddle in closer. You could hear the snuffles of your mates, the lapping tongue of your mother cleaning soft downy fur. You start to sense there’s a bigger world out there, the giant beings that come and go, the things that stretch up so high you can’t even see where they end. Sometimes they pick you up and hold you and make little sounds and it feels good. But you’re always happy to get back to your mom and the others. The best is when you latch on to her and her milk fills you, everyone mushed together and your eyes gradually close and there’s nothing else until your sister rolls on top of you and another one nips your ear and it all starts over again.

    Reply
    • Jmfthird

      Very descriptive and fun! Reminded me of the box-ful of kittens and their mom at my Grandma’s house when I was quite young.

      Reply
    • Mhvest

      wow squirrel stream of consciousness! I like it.

      Reply
  2. Marina Sofia

    Hear! Hear! I’m forever splitting my infinitives (well, OK, not forever, but where appropriate). That’s the joy of the English language – that you can do it!

    Reply
    • Barbara Budan

      I love learning that I can split infinitives without fear of reprimand from the English Grammar Police….of which I am one, may be difficult to escape that one.

      Reply
  3. mlhatcher

    O.K. Cannot worry about something I never really had a concern over.

    Reply
  4. Jmfthird

    The squirrels are my best neighbors. They run the branches of the old aspen and live oak trees in the complex where I live, and from there glide a smooth streak onto the roof of any of the buildings their little hearts desire to run.

    One day I stood on my little recessed deck taking in the afternoon, watching occasional busy passers-by of my own species, when I became aware that there was a tiny black eye trained on me from he edge of the overhang, eyeing me calmly, or so I thought until I tilted my head up and the little visage disappeared in an instant. Then in less than half a minute there she or he was, running the top of the wrought-iron fence next to the club-house, obviously not in a hurry; would lope a few steps and then stand on hind legs and turn back in my direction, looking, I swear it, to see if I was still taking all this in. I was. The furry creature with the fat long tail continued its leisurely lope along the top-rail, stopping every few steps to rub its snout on either side of the metal bar, a curiously companionable gesture signifying, I took it, its comfort with my presence on the landing fifteen feet away. That’s the day I began speaking to Earl (they all have graciously consented to go by Earl – Earl the, uh, squirrel). Their eyes are calm and friendly when they hear my voice. I spent my first two years here not knowing another soul, and some of the friendships I later formed took a problematic turn or two – but the Earls of my world apparently decided early on that I’m okay.

    Reply
    • Mhvest

      I love this. I don’t know anything about split infinitives but you really describe the squirrels well. They are funny little characters.

      Reply
    • Wanda Luthman

      Aw, how sweet and I love their name–Earl the Squireel.

      Reply
  5. Clint

    Thanks! I now have licence to boldly go on splitting my infinitives.

    Reply
    • RAW

      Clint…. Thanks for the laugh!

      Cheers Man!

      Al W

      Reply
  6. Iulian Ionescu

    Thanks for clearing this out. Not that it was a major concern, but now I know!

    Reply
  7. Monique Liddle

    Hello Liz!
    I was taught not to split my infinitives because the verb is “to split” not only “split.” By placing a word in btween the 2 words, in effect I am splitting the verb.

    English grammar rules are contrary. However, I will need more information to sway what I have learned for many years.

    Monique

    Reply
    • Bronson O'Quinn

      This seems like it makes sense, but remember that English is a Germanic language, not Latinate. In German, many verbs are designed to be split, sometimes sending the prefix all the way to the end. (e.g. “Ich stehe auf.” where the verb is “aufstehen”, meaning “to stand up”). This works the same way with ending sentences with prepositions, which German does plenty.

      Of course, German and English aren’t the same. The problem comes from the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Invasion where Norman French speakers took over England. The prestige language became used by the government, church, cuisine, etc. Anything of Germanic roots was considered “vulgar” because that’s what the peasants spoke. So you have the fancy word “beef” instead of “cow” to mean what is cooked. (Or “venison” and “deer”.)

      But this is also why so many of our words seem to have Latin roots. They are borrowed from French, which is derivative of Latin (hence the term “Romance” language.)

      Prescriptive grammar rules are generally created to denigrate classes of people. Because Latin was the language of the Church, French the language of the government, and Italian the language of the Arts, using Latin rules for English seemed like the “classy” thing to do. But does that make it “right?”

      Honestly, I think the real reason they say not to split infinitives is because it usually uses adverbs, and Adverbs tend towards lazy writing, telling instead of showing.

      Reply
      • Bruce Carroll

        Another problem is that languages aren’t planned. They develop over time. Many things don’t make much sense at all, like making plurals in English (houses, mice, moose, children,…).

        Reply
    • Brian Wasko

       That’s strange Monique, because infinitives don’t act like verbs. They are verbals, verb forms that don’t function as verbs. Infinitives almost always function like nouns: I like to swim. (“To swim” is the object of the verb “like.”)

      Even if infinitives did function as verbs, we split verbs all the time. In the sentence “I do not like yogurt,” the verb is “do like” split with the word “not.” Same goes for “I can easily count to ten” or “I will probably arrive late.”

      Reply
  8. Catherine Wrigley

    “Ahhh!” He moved to quickly hop from the bed but got tangled in the covers.
    “What?” She started to drowsily reach for the lamp next to the bed.
    “There was something on me!”
    “No there wasn’t. You feel stuff at night. Go back to sleep.”
    “No, there was something on me. Don’t tell me I’m imagining things.”
    “Hon…”
    “There are bugs in here.” He untangled his legs and lunged for the overhead light switch. She sat up and blinked. He had to do something about his anxiety issues.
    “He made it back to the bed in one long step, grabbed the sheet and hurled it across the room. She astonished herself with how quickly she was able to get out of bed and across the room when she saw the roaches.
    “Ahhhh! I told you!”
    “God,” she said quietly. “Did you have food in here?”
    “Are you crazy? I told you this place wasn’t clean when we took it.” He hurled himself back and flung the pillows aside. “What the hell!”
    She was feeling more than a little sick to her stomach. This was definitely going to become a fight.
    He was shaking and turning red, looking like he was stealing himself up. This time he grabbed the corner of the futon mattress and flipped the whole thing over. She wondered what you called that many roaches. A swarm? A hive? A heard? Disgusting?

    Reply
    • Bruce Carroll

      A hoard. I’d definitely call them a hoard. They need to call an exterminator. And and exorcist, just to be sure.

      Reply
    • RAW

      Catherine, I love your dialog! Keep up the good work!

      Al W.

      Reply
  9. Mirel

    Interesting. Maybe I’m older than you. I was taught that you can’t split infinitives. And all that splitting above has given me a splitting headache. Probably because familiarity breeds contempt, errrrr… make that familiarity, the only one that didn’t jar on me was the Star Trek line…

    Reply
  10. Charles Miller

    I prefer normally not to split infinitives myself. Just because a rule or practice is longstanding does not mean it is archaic or baseless. Writing is much clearer if one does not split infinitives and generally follows grammatical rules. I realize many writers like to be rebellious and don’t care about learning or practicing good grammar, but I’m not one of them.

    Reply
    • David J. Sellers

      I agree.

      Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      I totally get that, Charles. The purpose of grammatical rules is always to enhance clarity, and we shouldn’t sacrifice things that do that. I would say the rule about splitting infinitives isn’t flexible because it’s old, but because when it was first established, it was an arbitrary distinction to begin with, based on Latin rather than English. Even so, if you’d rather not split infinitives, by all means, don’t! I’m sure you’ll find readers who appreciate it, too.

      Reply
  11. Nicole Prescott

    Nosey Goesy the littlest panda and her friend Pepper Tom The Turtle, walk along the forest path on their to nursery school. When Nosey Goesy hears someone whispering. “Hey Pepper Tom, do you hear that”? “Hear what Nosey”? “It’s somebody over there talking “! “Let’s go see sneak and see what they talking about “!? “I don’t think that’s a good idea Nosey, we’re going to be late for school”. “Ah come on Tom just real quick”. Pepper Tom looking worried decide to go along with his friend, even though he knew it was a bad idea.

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      I love this cast of animal characters. Thanks for sharing, Nicole!

      Reply
      • Nicole Prescott

        Thank you so much. Nosey goesy is basic off of my daughter. She is a very noesy 2yr old lol

        Reply
  12. careyrowland

    To judiciously split an infinitive is no big deal. The real problem is those dangling prepositions. But the language is morphing so fast that we now find ourselves having no haven of correctness to go to. So we’d best just, um, go with the flow, and hope the world does not, um, erupt in flames and destroy all the great, um, literature and poetry that has ever been , um, written about. Including all that is yet to be written, um, about.
    And don’t even get me started on all those participles out there in cyberspace that are hiding out, just dangling, um. . . Things could get worse before they ever get better. Nevertheless, there is much work to yet be done. The dilemma is knowing where to, um, start. Good luck with that, Joe, if you think we can turn this thing around. But I am not on it betting.
    Keep up the good practice, y’all.

    Reply
    • Bruce Carroll

      The degradation of the English language makes my, um, blood boil. I’ve come across “I seen,” “he/she/it seen” so many times I can no longer count them. A few days ago I heard a commercial on the radio which prompted the listener to “do that dance only the neighbors seen you do.” Do helping verbs not, um, help anymore?

      Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      I know what you mean—it can feel like the English language is falling to pieces around us, can’t it? It’s natural for language to evolve over time, although it can be hard to accept changes as they come (trust me, I know!). Even so, I wouldn’t worry too much about losing our long history of literature to the tides of linguistic evolution. Thanks for hanging around with us as we do our best to promote correct grammar!

      Reply
  13. careyrowland

    You too, Liz. Thanks for your advice.

    Reply
  14. Lorna Robinson

    I want to quickly go and jump on that bed over there, to find Lisa, who sleeps but is never to busy sleeping for me. She to loves me as I love her…. Is this right?

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      You’ve got it with “to quickly go,” Lorna! “To go” is the infinitive of the verb, so “to quickly go” splits it.

      The other two “to”s are actually not infinitives, but adverbs: “to busy” should be “too busy,” meaning “excessively busy.” “She to loves” would be “She too loves,” meaning “She also loves.” To, too, two—all those “to”s can get confusing, can’t they?

      Reply
      • Lorna Robinson

        Thank you, this helped me a little.

        Reply
  15. Billie L Wade

    Thank you for a great post. I have tried rewriting sentences without splitting the infinitive, sometimes with hilarious—and totally nonsensical—results. Your post reminded me that the goal of any sentence is clarity.

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      That’s absolutely true, Billie! If it makes a sentence clearer to keep an infinitive un-split, by all means, don’t split it. But when that starts messing with the meaning, it’s time to bend the sentence—and the “rules.”

      Reply
  16. Bruce Carroll

    This is a very good point. The takeaway is: Always write for your audience.

    Reply
  17. David J. Sellers

    In general I agree to rarely split infinitives. But I’m old school and, grammar-wise, sometimes feel like I never passed 1900 or so. What bothers me more, however, are misplaced onlys. E.g., “It only happens when one is careless about saying what she means.” Anyone else share my frustration?

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      I think your philosophy’s a great one—just because you can split infinitives doesn’t mean you always should. I wholeheartedly agree with you about “only”! If only everyone knew where to put it in their sentences. In fact, we published an article about this very thing a few months ago. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  18. Joe Volkel

    Ahh – To be, or to not be – that is the question.

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      Shakespeare would be proud (or rolling in his grave)!

      Reply
  19. TerriblyTerrific

    I surely did not know this! Thank you!

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      Aren’t odd grammar facts fun? Thanks for learning with us!

      Reply
  20. PappaMurf

    Bless you, miladies. Here’s hoping you will continue to boldly go forth with your educative efforts deep into the occupied literary territories held by the archaic Grammaristas. May your antibodies of fact destroy their virus-like resistance to grammar evolution.

    #SoSayWeAll

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      Grammar evolution is a murky swamp, isn’t it? I’ll admit to having certain rules and quirks I hold to tightly—but not splitting infinitives isn’t one of them. Thanks for venturing out into the vagaries of English grammar with us!

      Reply
  21. Alice Sudlow

    That’s a fair point! For our contests, you won’t have to worry: our judges aren’t looking for split infinitives, and also, grammar/proofreading is weighted lightly. Even so, Bruce is right—always write for your audience. And if you feel more confident entering a story with no split infinitives, by all means, keep them split-free!

    Reply
  22. RAW

    At the young age of twelve, John already wanted to absolutely be the smartest student in his High School Science class. Having no aptitude for Biology, he studied Physics, Chemistry and computer algorithms night and day.

    It didn’t matter that John had no social life, or that he was not popular with others in his classes. In fact, the other students teased him and called him, “Mr. Vocabulary”, since he always used words in Science and Math classes they did not know and didn’t understand.

    But John was undeterred by the attitudes of others or their treatment of him. Always in the student library, he had studied the biographies of the some of the greatest minds in Science; Galileo, Newton, Currie, Heisenberg, Schrodinger and Einstein. He knew it took tremendous dedication and determination to look past the nay-Sayers for the advancement of Science and for the sake of new knowledge itself. He wanted nothing more than to understand how the universe worked, and to get himself listed among the geniuses of his time.

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      Sounds like John is an enterprising intellectual rebel who’s absolutely ready to be the smartest student around! Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  23. RAW

    Alice,

    Thanks for the fun topic! I LIKE IT !!!

    As far as I’m concerned, the goal of the written word is to better educate, entertain or inform the reader. If you do that, then it’s a success, and if you are not technically, grammatically or syntactically correct… then frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a damn! (You have still succeeded in my book!)

    Cheers to one and all!

    Al W

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Al! I completely agree with you about the purpose of writing. Grammar rules are meant to enhance clarity so we can communicate effectively, and usually they do that—but when they don’t, it’s time to dig down to the source and consider an overhaul!

      Reply
      • RAW

        Off topic a bit…. but I sometimes I just love the written word! Consider the nonsensical lyrics of one Dr. Seuss!

        Here is an excerpt from his “Fox in Socks”!

        Read it out loud! It has a wonderful cadence!

        “Look, sir. Look, sir. Mr. Knox, sir.
        Let’s do tricks with bricks and blocks, sir.
        Let’s do tricks with chicks and clocks, sir.

        First, I’ll make a quick trick brick stack.
        Then I’ll make a quick trick block stack.

        You can make a quick trick chick stack.
        You can make a quick trick clock stack.

        And here’s a new trick, Mr. Knox….
        Socks on chicks and chicks on fox.
        Fox on clocks on bricks and blocks.
        Bricks and blocks on Knox on box.

        Now we come to ticks and tocks, sir.
        Try to say this Mr. Knox, sir….

        Clocks on fox tick.
        Clocks on Knox tock.
        Six sick bricks tick.
        Six sick chicks tock.”

        Ha, ha! OK. Now that I woke everybody up!
        If that’s not entertaining, I don’t know what is!

        I think I’m 63 going on 5!

        Al W.

        Reply
  24. Tammy L.

    I remember waiting anxiously as the first episode of Star Trek TNG aired, dying to find out if they were still going to split away. I was happy that they did, more for continuity’s sake than any other reason at the time.

    Reply
  25. Davidh Digman

    I also insist to boldly, vigourously, even tempestuously ignore each and every rule if that is in service of character. Few people talk in the Queen’s prim and proper English, and so I expect few characters to do that as well.

    Reply
  26. hughdisqus

    I am wondering, if you can say “to slowly chew,” then instead of asking “You want to chew how?” can you ask “You want to how chew?” Doesn’t sound right but does it violate any rule? Perhaps I am splitting hairs.

    There are arguments for both sides of this. I have always been against incomplete sentences in fiction but it’s frequently done. It makes prose sound like conversation. E.g.

    “He felt the door with the back of his hand but it wasn’t hot. Not this time.”

    Ok, so I may be learning how to flex on that, I guess. There are those who don’t. That’s ok.

    I would prefer intellectual debate with those who are stricter about the rules, rather than labeling them “grammar nazis.” Using the word “nazi” for someone who is priggish about grammar is a bit much. Oh, yes, it’s just figurative and I expect a few will hate on me for calling this out, but we know where that word came from and it should stay there.

    I appreciate this article and seeing the different points of view on the subject.

    Reply
  27. WendS

    Thank you Alice. I have always felt that the split infinitive rule is silly. And I generally split away. It is great to know the history of it and can’t wait for someone to pick on my split infinitive.

    Reply
  28. varsha

    I completely agree with you. A language is given to you to communicate your words completely and freely and in that course if you need to slit infinitives it is for the good of communication.

    Reply

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