Split Infinitives‏‎ in English Grammar

Scott & Spock arguing over GrammarSplit Infinitives are a construction in English‏‎ when the infinitive of a verb‏‎ is cut in half by another word. For example:

Infinitive: to see
Split Infinitive: to barely see

The infinitive is most often split by an adverb‏‎ or adverbial phrase‏‎.

I attempted to carefully remove the plug.

She began to frantically and almost hysterically rip at the packaging.

Historical

The first written record of a split infinitive occurs in a 13th century manuscript in Middle English. Before this infinitives in English could not be split because they were one word only.

By the 14th century it was common in literature but two hundred years later in the time of Shakespeare in the late 16th century it had fallen out of fashion (Shakespeare only uses it once in his works) and the King James Bible, for example, translated in early 17th century does not use it at all.

But then it came back into fashion, especially in colloquial speech, and by the 19th century it was very common. It was then that grammarians began to discuss the construction more often and then rail against its use.

Objections

In the 19th century grammarians began to classify English more strictly and put forward rules for usage. (Prescriptive Grammars were written with rules on how English should be used compared with the Descriptive Grammars written now which describe how English is actually used in real life; see Descriptive vs Prescriptive Grammars for more on this.)

Whilst a few grammarians defended it, most did not, bringing into play 2 main arguments against its use:

  • The 19th century prescriptive grammarians felt that to was so closely associated with its verb that it was not right to arbitrarily split them.
  • The more educated - and ruling - classes did not tend to split their infinitives and thus felt it was more correct than the split infinitives used by the hoi polloi.

Note that today people often cite the 19th grammarians love of Latin as a reason why they objected to split infinitives; this is not the case, however. The argument goes that in Latin infinitives were not allowed to be split and therefore when the grammarians applied traditional Latin grammar rules to English they decided that splitting infinitives was wrong in modern English because it was wrong in Latin. However, this argument does not hold weight since it was not wrong in Latin, just impossible!

Modern Views & TEFL

With the availability of corpus linguistics and the trend to descriptive grammars, split infinitives are acceptable now to all but the most conservative and traditional users of English.

In a TEFL class it is not necessary to correct split infinitives or even mention them. Only pedants will object.

Trivia

  • George Bernard Shaw wrote to the newspapers in the defense of split infinitives.
  • Arguably the most famous ever split infinitive is used in Star Trek: To boldly go where no man has gone before.
  • The author Raymond Chandler once wrote a piece for a magazine; a proofreader changed his piece to remove a split infinitive. Chandler wrote to them:

    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.
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