Just Split the Infinitive, Alright?

Several times recently I’ve come across prose that is worded awkwardly in order to avoid splitting an infinitive. And I’ve had it. The phrase that tipped me over the edge and sent me running for my computer just now was,  “. . . appropriately to engage . . .” And what initially spurred this monomania a few weeks ago was a professor’s remark to a student, in one of only four “errors” in his student’s entire fifty-page thesis, was that a split infinitive should be fixed. Several episodes in the intervening time set me to foaming at the mouth and spinning into fits of apoplectic rage with increasing intensity. Back to the example at hand: “appropriately to engage.” Nobody speaks like this. It sounds weird, archaic, and stilted. But thankfully it’s not just my own soapbox. While searching out an answer to another tricky grammar rule, I was leafing through Patricia T. O’Connor’s helpful little book, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, when I came across a section of “dead rules,” each of which had a tombstone in place of a bullet point. Lo and behold, one of the first dead rules was that of avoiding split infinitives. She explained, first, that the to in an infinitive (e.g., to go) is not technically a part of the infinitive to begin with but is a preposition to let you know that an infinitive is coming. (N.B. In most languages, the infinitive form is built into the word itself, and you don’t need anything to tell you it’s coming.) Second, she explained that most of the zeal for fusing the to and the infinitive stemmed directly from Victorian grammarians who wanted the English language to closely resemble Latin, in which it is impossible to split an infinitive. In fact the rule doesn’t even show up until 1866 in a book titled A Plea for the Queen’s English.

So let’s be reasonable, people. Is it generally good to  avoid splitting infinitives? Yes, of course. But when splitting an infinitive produces crappy prose, I ask, Is the tail not in fact wagging the dog? The rules of grammar are our guides, which enable clarity and facilitate communication. If they blind us to the good, they have stopped serving their purpose; they have become our masters, we their slaves. Therefore let us split our infinitives with alacrity! And let not any of the poopypants who assume that taking grammar seriously means memorizing a set of rules tell us otherwise!


5 comments so far

  1. derekryanbrown on

    Three cheers for this post! And down with all over-zealous grammarian nomists who wield their English grammars so eagerly that they would admonish a fifth grade student for not properly using a semicolon. They have forgotten that grammar has a telos, and it is not grammar itself; rather, it is, as you rightly point out, to “enable clarity and facilitate communication.”

    Apparently Prof. Hurtado is not too keen on split infinitives. Fortunately I have not had to face him over this issue. At least not yet. But when I do, and I’m sure it will happen, I will tell him to simply and decisively consult the blog, “Mode of Expression.”

  2. Kristi on

    Ooo. You said poopypants.

  3. timothycairns on

    wow – to boldly go where no blog post has gone before!


  4. jeffreimer on


    I was also noticing the Pauline analogies as I wrote. If Hurtado shows up here, I’ll tell him to go read Galatians more closely.

  5. chad on

    Fine. Let’s split the infinitive. To heck with ’em anyway, all that creepy attachment between the “to” and the infinitive. It’s weird. Promotes stalking behavior in people.

    Here’s the real issue: if we can all agree to split our infinitives, I say that by our natural rights as English speaking citizens we should be free to end sentences with prepositions!!!!! Yes!!!! That’s the real revolt! Talk about awkward sentences, trying to get that dang preposition from the back of the line. Down w/ such legalism.

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