Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Are there rules on the placement of 'best'?

  • They are deciding how to best handle the matter.
  • They are deciding how best to handle the matter.

Is one of them wrong?

share|improve this question
1  
Beware of the semantics of "how to best" (though not an issue in the given sentence). –  Kris Dec 22 '12 at 7:54

5 Answers 5

Both are grammatical, but the second is probably found more frequently.

share|improve this answer
    
Do they mean the same thing? –  planem Dec 21 '12 at 12:35
    
I would say so. –  Barrie England Dec 21 '12 at 12:37
1  
@planem the average speaker interprets them the same way, but they could have different meaning under strict rules. –  New Alexandria Dec 21 '12 at 16:08
2  
@NewAlexandria: Okay, I'll bite. What are these "strict rules", and what different meanings might they distinguish between OP's two alternatives? –  FumbleFingers Dec 21 '12 at 22:30
    
I'm sure you have plenty of rep to put a nice bounty on that question ;) –  New Alexandria Dec 22 '12 at 3:23

Like Barrie England said, both are grammatically correct and mean the same. But it is considered non-standard to split infinitives (to + verb forms) by many. So by that account, saying how to best handle (infinitive is split as best is placed between to and handle) might sound unusual, though grammatically correct.

share|improve this answer
    
The myth of the split infinitive was demolished long ago. –  Barrie England Dec 21 '12 at 13:36
    
+1 A good valid point all the same. That's how we spell Inglish Teeture then? –  Kris Dec 21 '12 at 14:57
    
@Kris: That's just to remind myself constantly that English is a non-phonetic language. I always tell my students not to try to find logic in the way English words are spelt, something they often do and then find it hard to accept this lack of logic in spelling since their native languages are all phonetic. They just wish things could be spelt the way they are said :) –  user32480 Dec 22 '12 at 12:29

Adding to @FumbleFingers 's Ngrams-based answer, some data from COCA (450 million word corpus, (dwarfed by the Ngrams corpus, but higher quality data)). Consistent with what NGrams shows, Coca shows the non-split version to be roughly four times as frequent. This supports @Barrie England 's answer.

The search term how best to [v*] gives 775 hits. Top ten hits:

1 HOW BEST TO USE 38
2 HOW BEST TO ACHIEVE 30
3 HOW BEST TO DO 29
4 HOW BEST TO DEAL 28
5 HOW BEST TO MANAGE 24
6 HOW BEST TO PROTECT 24
7 HOW BEST TO HELP 20
8 HOW BEST TO HANDLE 18
9 HOW BEST TO APPROACH 17
10 HOW BEST TO RESPOND 17

The search term how to best [v*] gives 184 hits (roughty 1/4 as many). handle is 13th on the list with 3 hits. Top ten are:

1 HOW TO BEST USE 15
2 HOW TO BEST UTILIZE 7
3 HOW TO BEST PREPARE 6
4 HOW TO BEST MEET 6
5 HOW TO BEST EDUCATE 5
6 HOW TO BEST PROTECT 5
7 HOW TO BEST REACH 4
8 HOW TO BEST APPROACH 4
9 HOW TO BEST FACILITATE 4
10 HOW TO BEST MANAGE 4

Interestingly, when the search terms are as above, the non-split-infinitive version is more frequent. When I use @FumbleFingers 's query, [decide] how best to [v*] / [decide] how to best [v*], the relative numbers are: 12 hits for the split infinitive, 56 hits for the non-split infinitive. The relative proportions remain more or less the same.

share|improve this answer
    
I don't understand the point of this answer. Your figures say the same as my chart, only not so clearly. Barrie says OP's second version is probably found more frequently - and we both agree "probably" is probably an understatement, to say the least. I don't see why you needed to produce all this "higher quality" data to prove what NGrams had already shown. –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '12 at 4:22
    
@FumbleFingers oops, I misread the NGrams graph. It shows the same as the COCA. anyways, this is just in the spirit of scholarly cooperation; it strengthens both of our answers to know that they are in agreement. –  jlovegren Dec 22 '12 at 5:07
    
np. Have an upvote, since I see you've changed that contrary to NGrams bit. Anyway, it spurred me to consider why anyone would think there's an issue here in the first place. So I've thunk my thoughts, and extended my answer with them. Now we just have to wait for more votes to be cast by anyone else who agrees Barrie's answer is a bit too brief (we obviously do, or we wouldn't have bothered ourselves). I just want to see how many people will agree with StoneyB that both OP's versions are so contentious only a complete rewrite will do! –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '12 at 5:19

They're both valid, and I can't even be bothered to address the "split infinitive" (non-)issue, but this

enter image description here

is all you need to know if you want to sound like a native speaker.


The reason some people "decide how to best handle the matter" is probably nothing to do with "split infinitives" (which really are a complete non-issue, here and in other contexts). It's just that they're bothered by the fact that the "standard" usage clashes somewhat with similar constructions where the position of the adverb radically affects the meaning...

Decide how quickly to handle the matter.
Decide how to quickly handle the matter.

...are not the same! In the first version, how would normally be taken to modify quickly (i.e. - the decision is about how quickly the matter should be handled, not how to handle it quickly). But how certainly can't modify best in the same way (that would be deciding how well to handle things). And if you're thinking that "quickly" isn't the right word, note that...

"how quickest to" occurs 367 times in Google Books, whereas
"how to quickest" occurs only once.

share|improve this answer
    
-1 "how to best" = "how to get the better of" -- pitfall! –  Kris Dec 22 '12 at 7:53
    
@Kris. Can you provide an example of two complete sentences that show the difference, in the way that FF's do for quickly? –  Barrie England Dec 22 '12 at 8:10
    
@BarrieEngland "... the abbess taught her how to best an opponent who is larger and stronger ..." (books.google.com/books?isbn=0889204977) "How to best an opponent using 4 dimensional strategy." (google.com/…) –  Kris Dec 22 '12 at 8:20
1  
@Kris. Thank you. I know how best can be used as a verb. What I was looking for was a pair of sentences using best modelled on FF’s Decide how quickly to handle the matter and Decide how to quickly handle the matter. –  Barrie England Dec 22 '12 at 8:31
1  
@Kris: What Barrie said. It's grammatically impossible to interpret "best" as a verb in either of OP's constructions, so if that was your reason for downvoting I have to say you are mistaken. –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '12 at 17:50

SUPPLEMENTAL:
The answers by Barrie England and Inglish Teeture are entirely adequate. However, your two alternatives present a dilemma: would you rather annoy the readers who still hold to what Barrie calls the “myth of the split infinitive” or those readers who clamorously deny it?

Your job as a writer is to avoid annoying anybody, so your readers pay attention to what you’re saying rather than how you say it. Don’t give them anything to argue about. Sidestep the issue by rewriting:

They are deciding how to handle the matter best.
They are deciding what the best way of handling the matter will be.

Or, simplest of all (and probably more accurate, too, since there’s no guarantee that the ‘best’ solution will be adopted):

They are deciding how to handle the matter.

share|improve this answer
    
There's no substance whatsoever to this "split infinitive" business, as I'm sure you know. So why advise OP to take care not to offend the (fictitious) people who might believe in the myth? –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '12 at 5:03
    
@FumbleFingers The "substance" is use (as you and jlovegren show), not belief. But three or four times a year I find people actually rewriting my un-split infinitives because they've read articles decrying the "myth" and think they're supposed to split infinitives; so I've learned to avoid it. –  StoneyB Dec 22 '12 at 6:03
    
Splitting hairs, but you still manage to ruffle feathers, with or without infinite rephrasing, as the comments show. I write what comes naturally and let the reader tear his hairs. –  Kris Dec 22 '12 at 7:50
    
@StoneyB: Okay, I admit I was feeling a bit tetchy last night - I'm sure you have more experience than me when it comes to copy-editing and adverse criticism (justified or not). Me, I don't like the idea of pandering to pedantry in the first place, and the identification of split infinitives as "erroneous" doesn't really even have pedantry to back it up (it's more just out-and-out ignorance! :) –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '12 at 17:45
    
@FumbleFingers I agree with your characterization of "split infinitives", but what chaps my ass is being told by those less sophisticated than you that I should split the infinitive in circumstances where it's clearly less idiomatic. –  StoneyB Dec 22 '12 at 17:50

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.