Split Infinitives

Randy Black asked:  "Anyone want to talk about split infinitives?" Cameron Sawyer says: I wish I had something wise to say about split infinitives, but I could never improve on Margaret Nicholson's brilliant exposition of the subject: Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes; 'to really understand' comes readier to their lips and pens than 'really to understand', they see no reason why they should not say it (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics' strong point), and they do say it, to the discomfort of some among us, but not to their own.

To the second class, those who do not know but do care, who would as soon be caught putting their knives in their mouths as splitting an infinitive but have hazy notions of what constitutes that deplorable breach of etiquette, this article is chiefly addressed.  ‘To really understand’ is a split infinitive; ‘to really be understood’ is a split infinitive; but ‘to be really understood’ is not a split infinitive.  The havoc that is played with much well-intentioned writing by failure to grasp that distinction is incredible.  Those upon whom the fear of infinitive-splitting sits heavy should remember that to give conclusive evidence, by distortions, of misconceiving the nature of the split infinitive is far more damaging to their literary pretensions than an actual lapse could be; for it exhibits them as deaf to the normal rhythm of English sentences.  No sensitive ear can fail to be shocked, if the following examples are read aloud, by the strangeness of the indicated adverbs.  Why on earth, the reader wonders, is that word out of its place?  He will find, on looking through again, that each has been turned out of a similar position, between the word be and a passive participle.  Reflection will assure him that the cause of dislocation is always the same.  These writers have sacrificed the run of their sentences to the delusion that ‘to be really understood’ is a split infinitive.  It is not; and the straitest non-splitter of us all can with a clear conscience restore each of the adverbs to its rightful place as indicated by the caret.  FAILURE TO RECOGNIZE AN INFINITIVE:  He was proposed at the last moment as a candidate likely generally to be accepted. When the record of this campaign comes dispassionately to be  written, it will be found that . . ."The leaders have given instructions that the lives and property of foreigners shall scrupulously be respected."

The writers of class (2) are boy-haunted creatures who for fear of splitting an infinitive abstain from doing something quite different, i.e. dividing be from its complement by an adverb . . . Those of class (3) who presumably do know what split infinitives are, and condemn them, are not so easily identified, since they include all who neither commit the sin nor flounder about in saving themselves from it, all who combine with acceptance of conventional rules a reasonable dexterity.  But when the dexterity is lacking, disaster follows.  It does not add to a writer’s readableness if readers are pulled up now and again to wonder – why this distortion?  Ah, to be sure, a non-split die-hard!  It is of no avail merely to fling oneself desperately out of the temptation.  One must so do it that no traces of the struggle remain; that is, sentences must be thoroughly remodeled instead of having a word lifted form its original place and dumped elsewhere.   DISTORTIONS IN AVOIDING A SPLIT INFINITIVE:  What alternative can be found which the Pope has not condemned, and which will make possible to organize legally public worship (to organize public worship legally?)./ If it is to do justice between the various parties and not unduly to burden the State, it will . . . (burden the State unduly)./ Nobody expects that the executive of the Society is going to assume publicly sackcloth and ashes (assume sackcloth and ashes publicly).

Just as those who know and condemn the split infinitive include many who are not recognizable, only the clumsier performers giving positive proof of resistance to temptation, so too those who know and approve are not distinguishable with certainty.  When a man splits an infinitive, he maybe doing it unconsciously as a member of our class (1), or he may be deliberately rejecting the trammels of convention and announcing that he means to do as he will with his own infinitives.  It is perhaps fair to assume that each of the following specimens is a manifesto of independence.  DELIBERATE BUT UNNECESSARY SPLIT INFINITIVES:  It will be found possible to considerably improve the present wages of the miners ^ without jeopardizing the interests of capital./ But even so, he seems to still be ^ allowed to speak at union demonstrations./  The men in many of the largest districts are declared to strongly favor a strike ^ if the minimum wage is not conceded.  It should be noticed that in these the separating adverb could have been placed outside the infinitive, as indicated by the caret, with little or in most cases no damage to the sentence rhythm (considerably after miners, still with clear gain after be, and strongly at some point loss after strike), so that protest seems a safe diagnosis.

The attitude of those who know and distinguish is something like this:  We admit that separation of to from its infinitive (be, do, have, sit, doubt, kill, or other verb inflectionally similar) is not in itself desirable, and we shall not gratuitously say either to mortally wound or to mortally be wounded; but we are not foolish enough to confuse the latter with to be mortally wounded, which is blameless English [that is, not a split infinitive at all], nor to just have heard with to have just heard, which is also blameless.  We maintain, however, that a real split infinitive, though not desirable in itself, is preferable to real ambiguity, and to patent artificiality.  We will rather write Our object is to further cement trade relations than, by correcting into Our object is further to cement . . . , leave it doubtful whether an additional object or additional cementing is the point.  And we take it that such reminders of a tyrannous convention as in not combining to forbid flatly hostilities are far more abnormal than the abnormality they evade.  We will split infinitives sooner than be ambiguous or artificial.  More than that, we will freely admit that sufficient recasting will get rid of any split infinitive without involving either of those faults, and yet reserve to ourselves the right o deciding in each case whether recasting is worth while.

Nicholson, American-English Usage, <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />New York, 1957, pp. 540-543.

I think that really says it all.  English is a subtle and flexible language.  Mechanically following Strunk & White will not make anyone a good writer.  And in my experience, most split-infinitive bluenoses don't even know what a split infinitive really is.  As Nicholson says:  "Those upon whom the fear of infinitive-splitting sits heavy should remember that to give conclusive evidence, by distortions, of misconceiving the nature of the split infinitive is far more damaging to their literary pretensions than an actual lapse could be; for it exhibits them as deaf to the normal rhythm of English sentences."  Amen.  Really good usage requires a good ear, as well as some taste and distinction, and perhaps a better guide than Strunk & White.

RH: My! This brings up my English classes at school. I maintained that,since in most other languages the infinitive is one word. split infinites should not be used.  I got over my juvenile pedantry, and now I like split infinitives. My problems are more basic, such as getting WAISers to learn the difference between "its" and ·"it's".

Your comments are invited. Read te home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on:   http://wais.stanford.edu/ E-mail to hilton@stanford.edu. Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: October 8, 2004