Many of us grew up with the idea that the splitting of infinitives is always and everywhere wrong—the marriage between “to” and a verb was thought to be a sacred bond that no one dare put asunder. So it is perhaps surprising to read in §5.106 of the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), “Although from about 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate the to from the principal verb.” The example given in an earlier version of the CMS is:
They expect to more than double their income next year.
The truth be told, the splitting of infinitives in English goes back to at least the fourteenth century, and it is really only a mid-nineteenth century convention that proscribed the practice—a proscription that is now widely recognized as passé. Indeed, it is worth noting that even the SAT, GMAT, and TOEFL tests recognize the acceptability of the split infinitive, and courses designed to prepare people to take these tests frequently point out the danger of automatically excluding the split infinitive option as the possible correct answer. Like it or not, split infinitives are part and parcel of English usage and they are likely here to stay.
So it doesn’t matter if the infinitive is split or not? Well—I wouldn’t go that far! Of course it matters. Sometimes it matters a great deal. The acceptability of split infinitives can’t be confused with the appropriateness of using them in every situation. All that it means is that the writer has to do more than appeal to a grammatical rule; some thought is required.
A Matter of Emphasis
The split-infinitive example that seems most widely used by those who comment on grammatical issues on the Internet is the famous opening line from Star Trek:
To boldly go where no man has gone before.
If mindless adherence to some non-existent grammatical rule is the key, then we could easily wipe out the split infinitive with a simple rearrangement of words:
To go boldly where no man has gone before.
It means the same thing, after all, doesn’t it? Well—not quite. The same idea is conveyed, but clearly not with the same punch. The latter example simply doesn’t have the same emphasis that the former example has. It falls flat.
Perhaps that’s why The Chicago Manual of Style goes on to elaborate in §5.168 why one may choose to split or not to split an infinitive:
And sometimes it is perfectly appropriate to split an infinitive verb with an adverb to add emphasis or to produce a natural sound. . . . A verb’s infinitive or to form is split when an intervening word immediately follows to [e.g., to bravely assert]. If the adverb bears the emphasis in a phrase [to boldly go], [to strongly favor], then leave the split infinitive alone. But if moving the adverb to the end of the phrase doesn’t suggest a different meaning or impair the sound, then it is an acceptable way to avoid splitting the verb. Recasting a sentence just to eliminate a split infinitive or avoid splitting the infinitive can alter the nuance or meaning: for example, it’s best to always get up early (always modifies get up) is not quite the same as it’s always best to get up early (always modifies best). Or an unnatural phrasing can result: it’s best to get up early always.
And that brings us to the other point that must be borne in mind when deciding whether or not to split an infinitive: Strive for naturalness of expression. In this regard, it should be noted that different expectations will apply to spoken English and informal written English, on the one hand, and to formal written English, on the other. What is considered acceptable in spoken and informal expression is often not acceptable in formal written English. With regard to formal writing, it may be said that the default position is still to avoid splitting infinitives, BUT with this proviso: Avoid splitting infinitives except when doing so would disrupt the intended emphasis or create an unnatural expression.
Splitting infinitives will not get you arrested by the grammar police, therefore, but neither is it something to be done carelessly. It is a matter for conscious choice. And in making the choice about whether or not your infinitive should be split, the most important considerations are emphasis and naturalness of expression.
So the old rule (if, indeed, it ever was a rule) no longer applies. But the result is not less need for concern over the issue—it is more. In the absence of a rule, what is needed is skill.
This article is archived from the original Edits Made Easy website and is re-posted here to our new blog under a new date.