The Negative Canon: ‘Split Infinitive’

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

It really shouldn’t be necessary any longer to state that there is no rule of English grammar that prohibits the placing of anything between the particle to and the infinitive of the verb, yet there still seem to be those who believe there is. When this does occur they speak of a ‘split infinitive’, as if to was part of the verb. It isn’t, so there’s nothing to split. This applies to English just as much as it did to Latin, from which this strange notion is said to derive. As R L Trask writes in ‘Mind the Gaffe’,this traditional term is a misnomer, since, in this construction, nothing is split, least of all the infinitive, which is a single word’. Or, as Geoffrey Pullum has said on Language Log (my emphasis):

The misnamed ‘split infinitive’ construction, where a modifier is placed immediately before the verb of an infinitival complement, has never been ungrammatical at any stage in the history of English, and no confident writer of English prose has any problems with it at all. (As the grammarian George O. Curme pointed out in 1930, it’s actually the minor writers and nervous nellies, the easily intimidated, who seem to worry about it.)

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ suggests that ‘the enduring popularity of the split infinitive is due to its catchy name’ and quotes Ambrose Beirce (he of ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’) as more or less saying so in 1909:

Condemnation of the split infinitive is now pretty general, but it is only recently that any one seems to have thought of it. Our forefathers and we elder writers of this generation used it freely and without shame – perhaps because it had not a name, and our crime could not be pointed out without too much explanation.

Just to be clear about it, all verbs have a plain form, that is, the basic word that you look up in a dictionary. All other forms derive from it. Walk, for example, is the plain form of a regular verb, and from it we get the forms walk, walks, walking and walked. Walk is used for all forms of the present tense except the third person singular. It is also used as the infinitive, and is found in clauses such as:

(1) I like to walk

and

(2) I might walk.

Example (2) provides evidence, if any is needed, that it is walk that is the infinitive, not to walk.

No serious authority that I know of claims that the construction is ungrammatical. On the contrary, not to use it can have infelicitous results. As Trask writes his article:

Desperate attempts at avoiding ‘split infinitives’ often produce English which is not only tortured and unnatural but even ambiguous and misleading.

Even Harry Blamires is not greatly disturbed by it:

. . . it is not difficult to assemble instances of the split infinitive which are unobjectionable.

In fact, the question is really more to do with the placing of adverbs than anything else. We might write, for example:

3a. In heavy rain it’s wise to drive slowly.

rather than:

3b. ?In heavy rain it’s wise to slowly drive.

If placing slowly between to and drive is ungrammatical, it’s not because of any zombie rule about infinitives, but because that’s not where adverbs of manner normally occur. In other cases, the position of an adverb can change the emphasis of a sentence. It is certainly possible to write:

4a. The government have decided to increase the allowance paid to the unemployed gradually.

Here, the terminal position foregrounds gradually, and that is something the government might not want to do. They might want instead to emphasise the fact of the increase, and to minimise the fact that it is to be introduced in stages. In that case, losing the adverb between to and the verb does the job:

4b. The government have decided to gradually increase the allowance paid to the unemployed.

Pointing out that there is no rule of English grammar that prohibits the placing of anything between to and the verb doesn’t mean that it is always effective to do so. It was an unwise placing of an adverb that led Geoffrey Pullum to take an incompetent writer to task on Language Log for producing this sentence:

On this occasion we’ve been forced to take the decision to regrettably cancel your flight.

What the writer meant was that the airline regretted that the flight was cancelled, not that it was cancelled, as the sentence says, in a regrettable manner. It’s so poorly constructed that moving the regrettably to before to or after cancel isn’t enough to put it right. Pullum recast it this way:

On this occasion we’ve regrettably been forced to take the decision to cancel your flight.

There is also a pragmatic aspect. As Peter Harvey says in his ‘A Guide to English Language Usage’:

. . . it must be said that there is still a considerable feeling among English speakers that a split infinitive is wrong

and he explains his position more fully on his blog:

My job is to teach and advise people who need to use English for their business and professional purposes. I also translate texts, sometimes for publication, for people who are demanding in their requirements. I simply cannot afford to have a student come back to me with a complaint that something that I have taught or tolerated has been criticised in no uncertain manner as a grammatical solecism by a native speaker; nor can I afford to have an argument with a translation client on the same matter.

A similar comment, of course, might be made about the negative canon as a whole. Individual writers must decide what words and structures are in their best communicative interest. All I say is that those features of the language that I suggest should be in the negative canon are not ungrammatical. Whether or not it is effective to use them in any particular context is a matter of style, not grammar, a distinction which I made in an earlier post.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “The Negative Canon: ‘Split Infinitive’

  1. Thank you for the mention. I would like make it clear for your readers that I am teaching EFL, in other words I am teaching English to people who need to know how to use the language correctly in order to communicate competently in English. They are not interested in grammatical controversy but want clear and simple guidelines. If I were teaching or explaining this to native-speaker students who had the language background to understand the point, I would do so differently and be more willing to defend the use of a split infinitive against opposition.

    I have very occasionally heard a student even try to split an infinitive. It is something that comes with great fluency and a natural ability to put adverbs in mid-position, which is itself a big problem, for Spanish-speakers at any rate.

    In my teaching I use the plain form when referring to a verb. Sometimes this surprises a student who has been taught that the infinitive must contain to.

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  2. Reblogged this on Shiverme Timbers and commented:
    Completely agree!

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  3. Just a note on TEFL nomenclature. We often talk of t0-infinitives and bare infinitives to distinguish between the two.

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  4. Jürgen A. Erhard

    (Late to the party, that’s me…)

    Sadly, you don’t have a single example where a “split infinitive” is the only correct way to express something. Or at least an example where adverb-between-to-and-verb and the opposite have completely different meanings.

    As to EFL: I’m not a native speaker. I love to “split infinitives”. Because I love how in English, descriptivism rules, whereas in German (my native tongue), it’s the opposite (Google “Rechtschreibreform”… yes, these things actually happen for realz in german-speaking countries (it helps that German is not as widely spoken as English))

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    • There’s no alternative to placing ‘more than’ between ‘to’ and ‘match’ in this sentence:

      ‘He wanted to more than match that offer.’

      Aren’t there various nonstandard German dialects in Germany? There certainly are in Switzerland.

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  7. Hello Sir. or Madam, I have a problem in using a negative infinitive with “There be” sentence. Could you tell me whether the following sentence right or wrong.

    There are 16 shop agents not to open their shops in public holiday.
    A: Wright
    B: Wrong

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    • I’m afraid I don’t know what a shop agent is, so let’s just think of shops instead. In that case, we might say something like ‘Sixteen shops are not opening on public holidays.’

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks Barrie, I would like to know the form of “THERE BE” with negative infinitive. So, could you give me a choice below:

    There are 16 grocery shops not to open their shops in public holiday.
    A: Wright
    B: Wrong

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    • Again, you’d have to write it slightly differently. Perhaps something like ‘There are sixteen grocery shops that don’t open their shops on public holidays.’ The exact form of words will depend on the context.

      The spelling, incidentally, is ‘right’, not ‘wright’.

      Liked by 1 person

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