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Mark's generosity in this crisis seems to more than make up for his earlier stinginess.

Should those sentences always be avoided, or are there cases where they are valid?

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3 Answers 3

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The only thing that should be avoided is awkwardness. Putting adverbial phrases between the infinitive complementizer to and the infinitive can sometimes be awkward, but it is certainly never ungrammatical or “invalid”. Even the most conservative and staunchest prescriptivist commenters admit that there is nothing inherently ungrammatical about so-called “split” infinitives, which have been attested in all forms of written English for at least seven hundred years.

Indeed, in many cases, putting the adverbial phrase in the intervening position is the only grammatical place to put it, such as in the example in the original poster’s question. There are a couple posts on Language Log discussing these “obligatorily split infinitives”: (“Obligatorily split infinitive”), (“Obligatorily split infinitive in real life”).

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"Even the most conservative and staunchest prescriptivist commenters admit that there is nothing inherently ungrammatical about so-called “split” infinitives" - really? –  delete Aug 28 '10 at 22:50
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I particularly love this line from Language Log: "People who reduce a complex and rather interesting subject to a narrow, mechanical, empirically uninformed game of grammar Gotcha." –  Kosmonaut Aug 29 '10 at 2:14
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From what I can recall this was a "rule" of Latin - not English. I agree with nohat on this. –  Tim Sep 28 '10 at 22:06
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@Tim I think the problem is that people take the complementizer to to be part of the infinitive itself. The inventor of this so-called rule believed (incorrectly) that English grammar should mirror Latin grammar, and so made the generalization that since you can’t break apart infinitives in Latin, which are single words without a complementizer, then you mustn’t put words between the complementizer to and the infinitive in English. It didn’t really make sense then and it certainly doesn’t make any sense now. –  nohat Sep 28 '10 at 22:33
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"To boldly go where no man has gone before" ;-) I think "split" infinitives are a great rhetorical device when used carefully. In this example, I can't think of a way to say the same without losing the elegance of the phrase. –  Tomalak Dec 12 '10 at 19:49

Consider this sentence: "The teacher wanted to frequently scold tardy students." Eliminate the split infinitive without completely re-writing the sentence.

"The teacher frequently wanted to scold tardy students."

Does not mean the same thing. The original sentence says that the teacher wanted to scold them many times. The second sentence says that the teacher often thought about scolding them. That is, in the original sentence, on one occasion the teacher thought about scolding many times. The second sentence says that on many occasions the teacher thought about scolding once.

"The teacher wanted to scold frequently tardy students."

Again, not the same. The original sentence says that each time the student is tardy, the teacher wanted to scold him. This sentence says that the teacher wanted to scold them only after they had been tardy many times.

"The teacher wanted to scold tardy students frequently."

Now it's ambiguous whether you mean that she often had the thought that she wanted to scold them, or that she wanted to scold them many times for each offense.

I'm sure you could re-write the sentence to eliminate the split infinitive while retaining the original meaning, but I don't see how to do it without getting much wordier and more awkward.

Any time following a rule creates all sorts of problems, while the only problem created by ignoring the rule is that pedants criticize us for breaking an arbitrary rule, it seems to me that the logical conclusion is that the rule is flawed.

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Should those sentences always avoided, or are there cases where they are valid?

A native speaker who hasn't been taught that split infinitives are "wrong" will not actually notice that there is something ungrammatical about "to boldly go where no man has gone before". Thus it is very hard to argue that split infinitives are actually mistakes. According to Fowler's "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage" (link to Wikipedia article), the notion that split infinitives are grammatically wrong originated from an application of Latin grammar (where it isn't even possible to split an infinitive) to English in the eighteenth century.

My own opinion is that there is no need to avoid them. I'd like to refer you to this notes and queries (Guardian newspaper) discussion for more discussion.

A funny quote from Fowler, via the Guardian style guide:

"The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and distinguish. Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are happy folk, to be envied." (HW Fowler, Modern English Usage, 1926)

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I don't think it conveys the right impression when you say "will not actually notice that there is something ungrammatical about" -- it would seem to imply that you believe that there is something wrong with it. I was half expecting you to go on to rail about how horrible split infinitives are and how they destroy the purity of the language after reading to that point. I think a better way to put it would be "will not see anything ungrammatical in", which does not imply that there is anything ungrammatical at all. –  SamB Jan 14 '11 at 20:09

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